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100 Best Games - Prince Valiant

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Prince Valiant - Cover

Prince Valiant - Robin D. Laws

Key Designers: Greg Stafford, William Dunn, Lynn Willis
Chaosium (first edition, 1989)

Roleplaying games, which allow participants to join together to create a fun and adventurous verbal story, seem like they ought to be ideal for families. All they require is a cooperative spirit and a sense of imagination — qualities no age group claims a monopoly on. In practice, roleplaying rules sets ideal for all members of a typical family aren’t so easy to find. Dungeons & Dragons, the originator of the form as we know it and still the default introduction to the genre, appeals brilliantly to people who delight in the mastery of complex rules details. The elaborate structure it and its many descendants offer is sweet music to a swath of players, mostly male, who stumble onto roleplaying in early adolescence or beyond.

Family gaming, with its range of age groups and mindsets, calls for a simpler, stripped-down approach to roleplaying. Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game provides just such an entry point.

Prince Valiant takes its basis in the classic newspaper comic strip, begun in 1937 by writer/illustrator Hal Foster and carried on to this day by successors. The game allows you to create stories around characters inhabiting Foster’s sunny, romantic version of the King Arthur myth. Both game and comic strip serve up their thrills and derring-do within a positive, clean-cut context. Their reassuring good nature appeals to younger kids, though they also offer plenty of Vikings, clashing swords, and suits of armor to hook the fancy of older ones. The game follows the comic strip in its happy disregard for historical accuracy. Parents with a mind to do so can, however, use game sessions to sneakily induce in their kids a basic grounding in the real history of Dark Ages Europe.

Character creation is simple, requiring players to make only two rules decisions. First they must allocate seven points between two qualities — brawn and presence — which are used to determine the results of broadly defined action attempts. One measures physical capability; the other, mental. Then players assign nine points to skills, from a list of fourteen. Examples of these more specific abilities include agility, archery, courtesie, fellowship, healing, and hunting. Players also invent suitable names for their characters, then describe their backgrounds, appearance, and personalities.

As in most roleplaying games, one participant takes on a guiding role, here called a storyteller. In a family game, you’ll want one of the adults, or an older kid capable of smoothly handling a group of excited players, to perform this job. The storyteller creates basic situations, called episodes, to which the players respond by describing the actions of their characters. When outcomes are in doubt, the storyteller uses the game’s resolution system to determine if the heroes succeed or fail. Prince Valiant uses an ingeniously simple system of coin tosses, as modified by the characters’ brawn, presence, and skills, to decide when the heroes forge ahead, and when they are confronted with additional setbacks or complications. Set aside a supply of shiny new pennies to ward off the grubby hand syndrome that comes with prolonged coin-handling.

Guidance for storytellers appears in the form of pre-written episodes. Incidents covered include dragon attacks, requests for aid from despairing families, and an array of knights who issue challenges to the heroes. A clear, consistent format allows you to easily create similar adventures arising from the Arthurian setting. By dividing the episode format into categories according to their function in the narrative — nuisance, assistance, and attack are examples — the game painlessly teaches you the basics of story structure.

Prince Valiant shares with other roleplaying games the trait of persistence over time: characters may succeed or fail in their story goals, but the players never win or lose. Instead, their heroes return for as many episodes as you care to spin, much like the ongoing protagonists of a TV series — or the Prince Valiant strip itself. A continuity spontaneously develops as the characters build on past successes and seek to overturn the complications of past failures. During the game, characters accrue fame, which they can use to improve their skills or boost their chances of success at certain social actions.

After several sessions, some groups may feel drawn toward the advanced rules. Added options include a beefed-up skill list, adding such abilities as bargaining, disguise, farming, and money-handling. By the standard of the typical roleplaying game, these extra rules remain radically simple in presentation and in play.

A key aspect of any roleplaying game is its malleability: together, storyteller and players are the ultimate authors of their own experience. They can alter anything, from the world to the rules themselves, to suit their own tastes and needs. Although Prince Valiant is eminently suitable as a family game, it doesn’t take that as its primary focus. A few obvious tweaks come to mind for storytellers running the game for kids, or with a mixed group of children and adults.

For starters, I’d deemphasize the game’s focus on evoking the Hal Foster style. Although the strip is still published in some newspapers, and King Features makes periodic attempts to revive it in other media, few kids will have heard of it. The strip’s stately appeal may be better appreciated by grown-ups. When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I remember finding it stodgily opaque. Whether it was the absence of word balloons or the classically measured compositions, its lack of obvious energy kept me at arm’s length. I don’t think I’m projecting when I assume that today’s kids, raised on SpongeBob and the Xbox, may need you to inject a more raucous, irreverent energy into your storytelling than strictly fits the Foster ethos.

In keeping with the strip, Prince Valiant allows for female characters but acknowledges the many obstacles that prevent them from acting with the same freedom as young male knights. To run the game for girls, adjust Foster’s Arthurian mythos to permit female knights. Let them pursue adventure with the same disregard for historical sexism as the boys do.

You can also allow kid players to customize the setting by adding elements that tickle their imaginations, whether or not they’re true to Foster or the Arthurian tradition. Foster’s strip takes a rationalistic approach to magic. If the kids want to add a dash of Harry Potter, follow their lead. If they’re going through a Twilight phase and want to meet a hunky, non-threatening vampire, take advantage of that pre-established interest. The opportunity to build on one another’s creative contributions is the core of the roleplaying experience. Granting this full flower will probably require you to set aside the game’s purist inclinations; the personalized roleplaying experience is well worth it.

The solid structure of Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game provides the ideal platform for the family gamer to introduce his or her brood to the joys of roleplaying. This is only fitting, as lead designer Greg Stafford’s love of storytelling in general and the classic strips of Hal Foster shines through on every infectious page.

Writer and game designer Robin D. Laws brought you such roleplaying games as Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists, The Dying Earth, HeroQuest, and Feng Shui. He is the author of seven novels, most recently The Worldwound Gambit from Paizo. For Robin’s much-praised works of gaming history and analysis, see Hamlet’s Hit Points, Robin’s Laws of Game Mastering, and 40 Years of Gen Con. Robin hails from Toronto and is a fixture of the game convention guest circuit.

Essay © copyright 2010, 2019 Robin D. Laws. Originally published in Family Games: The 100 Best, edited by James Lowder, Green Ronin, 2010. Reprinted by permission of the author.