Prince Valiant, the Story-Telling Game


Prince Valiant, 1989. Click to enlarge.

In 1989, Chaosium published my game based on the long-running comic strip by Hal Foster.

Prince Valiant was unique and, for its time, a revolutionary game whose long-reaching influence far belies its rather meager sales. The game's tagline, “The Story Telling Game," provides a glimpse of the influence it had in the creation of the Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) and related games later published by White Wolf Publishing as part of their “Storyteller System (later Storytelling System)." To be clear, I don't claim any creative part in the design of those games, but I can say I used to discuss the theory and practice of roleplaying and story-telling with Mark Rein-Hagen for years before he was ever published. 

I first developed the idea of a “dice pool" for skill resolution with Lynn Willis and Sandy Petersen for the Ghostbusters game in 1986. The system presaged dice-pool games like those in the World of Darkness line, ShadowRun, and the more modern Witch-Hunter (and many others), but the concept found its simplest expression in Prince Valiant where I used coins instead of dice to determine the number of successes.

This “rules-light" system (another innovation by 1989 standards) is a great choice for introducing roleplaying games to children — or for those who just don't want to figure out and remember a lot of rules.   

The Prince Valiant game has several other original and unique devices:

  • The world’s simplest resolution system (flipping coins). I hear some folk prefer to use binary dice. Hey, whatever works.
  • The world’s simplest character generation. There are two stats: Brawn and Presence. You simply divide six points between them and you have a character.
  • Everyone is a part-time Gamemaster. The game even had half-page tear-outs for the players to use to insert their little GM sessions right into a session.
  • It rewards Players as well as their characters. Players get a gold star on their character sheets!

I chose this setting because it was dear to me, and I thought it would be familiar to everyone and dear to them as well. Alas, the setting actually put a lot of people off— they apparently didn’t want to play in a setting that their grandfathers liked. Sadly, the game was not a commercial success. Lackluster sales meant the game never saw the sort of expansion that demands additional supplements. Luckily, the system “practically begs to create adventures on the fly" as one Amazon.com reviewer has observed, so the need for these is somewhat obviated. If you're ever able to pick up this gem of a game from a used bookseller, here are some resources to help inspire ideas for your game.

Origins

Prince Valiant is a weekly comic strip originally written and drawn by Hal Foster (1892-1982). The strip debuted in 1937 and, through the hands of several generations of writers and artists, continues to this day. It currently appears in over 300 American newspapers, according to its distributor, King Features Syndicate. 

Copyright King Features Syndicate. Click to enlarge.

Foster is credited as the first person to use a realistic drawing style and sophisticated compositions to the comic page. “Foster’s meticulously detailed, painstakingly researched, vividly realistic, and often breathtaking illustration made him one of the most revered artists in the comic field," said the prestigious Library Journal.

Prince Valiant has been one of my favorite Arthurian stories for much of my life. I do not remember when I began to read it — it is as if I was reading it all my life. Heck, I bet I was looking at the pictures in my Sunday paper before I could read!

By the late 80s, I had been wanting to do a nice, simple roleplaying game for quite some time. People would often ask what I did for a living, and when they asked if they could play one of my games with me I’d explain what was required and often they would change their mind. So I wanted a simple game I could play with a casual player. I wanted the simplest roleplaying game in the world. So I did Prince Valiant, the only RPG with just one page of rules. Yeah, the type is small — but it’s still only one page! 

When I was researching the game, I found a guy who had every original Sunday comic page and generously allowed me to sit in his study and go through them, page by plastic-wrapped page. At one point I was overwhelmed by deja vu when I saw one particular page and remembered the moment, many years before, when  I decided, “OK, I like this." 

The comic had a greater impact on King Arthur Pendragon than I had realized when I was making that game. I didn’t recognize it until I did this The Storytelling Game. Prince Valiant is set in 6th century Europe (more or less) but overlaid with Medieval customs for King Arthur and his men. Yow!
 

Resources

The Prince Valiant: The Story-Telling Game page on Wikipedia.
A good general overview of the system.

The Prince Valiant Fan Page
Has more stuff than you can imagine. Tons of inspiration.

Here's an index to the entire comic run. It's excellent.
 

Gamers talk “Prince Valiant"

“.... Prince Valiant provided in 1989 many of the things that latter would be considered a paradigm shift: a fundamental attention given to setting and the narrative aspects of playing, shifting roles within the gaming group, a focus on well-developed roles, and simple – if not minimal – rules..."

Prince Valiant by Sergio Mascarenhas | Style: 5, Substance: 5
Read the full review at RPG.net.
 

Although out of print, you can still find Prince Valiant, and I recommend you pick up a copy sometime. Young people are constantly growing into the age to be introduced to the hobby, and this is one of the best games I know for doing it. It allows them to be heroes, avoiding the World of Darkness trap, and is so simple they concentrate on playing the role, seeding good roleplaying habits that should last them the rest of their lives. Recommended."

Prince Valiant by Steffan O'Sullivan
Read the full review at RPGgeek.com.


“Most everyone who sees a copy realizes that it is about 10 years ahead of it's time. It has innovations within that were not redone for several years thereafter. I'm reitorating because it bears repeating. It was also a complete game in one book, 128 pages."

Prince Valiant by Aaron Zirkelbach | 5 Stars, “By far, the most underrated RPG of all time."
Read the full review at Amazon.com.


Well worth buying, particularly if you're looking for a quick, clean system with which to explore the world of King Arthur ... and probably readily adaptable to other, similarly heroic milieu."

Prince Valiant by "BK" | 5 Stars, “Quick, clever and virtually unknown."
Read the full review at Amazon.com.