In which our intrepid hero reviews Vigilance Press’ Clash series of PDF roleplaying supplements.

I think I first became aware of Vigilance Press through the regular d20 Community updates on ENWorld. It caught my eye particularly because of its emphasis on the one genre that seems largely neglected throughout 3e‘s run: historical gaming.

It’s easy to find high fantasy campaigns for D&D—they’re pretty much its bread and butter—but for a game that branded itself as “mediaeval fantasy” back in the day, historical gaming has been left largely by the wayside. There are outstanding exceptions, of course (David Chart’s Medieval Player’s Manual, Avalanche Press‘ notoriously cheesecake-covered books and a few thinly-veiled fantasy adventures from Monkey God Enterprises come to mind), but the field has been largely neglected.

I’ve been fairly reluctant to enter the PDF market (as I much prefer hardcopy books), but I recently decided to give it a go, a decision no doubt influenced by the arrival of a brand spanking-new debit card in the mail.

I’ve been a loyal lurker at Vigilance founder Charles Rice’s blog for a while. Much of Rice’s creative output is actually for d20 Modern variants—another genre which I feel has suffered unwarranted neglect—but occasionally, he strays into more mainstream fantasy and short historical pieces, such as his current collection of Clash PDFs.

The first, Clash of Arms: Cavalry, weighs in at a modest 11 pages. It begins with the Cavalryman core class (a reworking of the Fighter class from D&D), with variants for heavy cavalry, light cavalry and horse archers. Rice does a good job of defining these variants through their tactical uses on the battlefield, and further differentiates them through their class abilities.

The following section (which might have been better placed at the beginning) details cavalry-related technology, equipment and tactics from the ancient, classical and mediaeval eras. Unfortunately, Rice attempts this in just over a page, and I think this section could’ve used some more detail.

Different cultures used their cavalry in different ways, and it would’ve been nice to see a treatment of the Mongols (whose revolutionary use of cavalry still inspire manoeuvre warfare tacticians to this day) and Carthaginian, Parthian and Indian elephantry.

A discussion of later periods would also have been interesting. Despite the challenges created by the introduction of primitive firearms, the horse still had a significant battlefield role as late as the Palestine campaign of World War I, and even briefly saw (ineffectual) use during the German invasion of Poland in World War II.

I’m not saying that all this span of time should be within the scope of a short PDF, but the point is that cavalry continued to be useful even after the introduction of black powder. Considering that firearms have lurked on the periphery of D&D since AD&D2, and feature not only in Forgotten Realms but a number of third-party campaign worlds, a short section on the historical impact of gunpowder upon cavalry wouldn’t have been out of place.

Maybe Rice could cover this in a future Clash of Arms instalment.

Next, Cavalry details cavalry-related equipment, such as riding tackle and chariots. Rice does an excellent job at examining each in turn, although it might’ve flowed slightly better if the chariot had been given its own section.

That said, the D&D Core Rules gloss over riding tackle, although each part—from the bridle to stirrups—play an important role in a rider’s ability to control their mount. Clash of Arms: Cavalry covers this admirably, explaining the bonuses and penalties related to each item (or the lack thereof). The only other thing I could ask for here is mention of the humble horseshoe.

Last is a section on horse quality. I know that horse quality doesn’t exactly sound thrilling, but believe me, if you’re otherwise hesitant to spend $USD2.25 on a PDF, you’ll get your money’s worth in this section alone.

Why? In a mere 2½ pages, Rice transforms the horse from a poor man’s bag of holding or boots of speed into an actual character. As any horse rider can tell you, horses sometimes have complex personalities, and subtleties of their condition can have marked effects on how they perform in the field.

Granted, Rice isn’t the first to do this—I recall a Dragon article from the mists of time, and a section in the AD&D2 DMG—but he does it exceedingly well. The horse is elevated from a line item on an equipment list to an integral part of any party which makes use of the noble beast.

In Clash of Arms: Cavalry, Rice mentions that the cost of the horse largely limited its use to the wealthy, so it’s only natural that the next in the series should be Clash of Kings: Nobility.

The second Clash PDF opens with the Courtier core class, a PC-playable version of the Aristocrat NPC class from the DMG. Again, Rice isn’t the first to do this (Green Ronin’s Noble’s Handbook and the Rokugan hardback’s Courtier class are examples), but he puts his own stamp on the enterprise.

Like the Cavalryman in Clash of Arms: Cavalry, the Courtier class has three different specialties, in this case, the Leader, the Intriguer and the Rake. These can be mixed and matched, but each exemplifies an iconic theme of courtly tales: the great warrior, leading his countrymen on the battlefield (like Henry V); the scheming, manipulative backstabber (like the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons); or the swashbuckling rogue (like The Three Musketeers).

Notably, the Courtier’s abilities make extensive use of a literal Divine Right, something which I’ve yet to see in other adaptations. Given that Divine Right (here called the Great Chain of Being), along with force of arms, is what historically kept the nobility at the top tier of society, it’s both surprising that no one else thought of making it an integral part of D&D nobility, and gratifying that Rice did.

A short section on the British (more correctly, English) system of mediaeval peerage rounds out the 7-page PDF. Aside from a cut-and-paste error regarding baronial holdings, this part is handled well, considering its brevity.

Were Vigilance Press to produce a more substantial insight into the nobility, however, later developments such as the introduction of the baronetcy, and stratification of the knightly class would also be welcome here, as would be an explanation of what it actually means to be a prince. Subjects such as etiquette, precedence and heraldry would probably be a little too complex and involved to feature in great length, but a summary of other systems of nobility would be nice, too.

The aforementioned cut-and-paste error notwithstanding, Clash of Kings: Nobility suffers only from its brevity and Anglocentricity. At $USD1.50, it’s impossible to fault it on price, and Rice’s treatment of the Courtier makes the PDF well worth the investment.

And speaking of investment, the third in this series of PDFs is Clash of Kings: Guilds and Money. In fact, it was this product that initially spurred my interest in the entire series; as a perusal of some of my past blog entries show, mediaeval economics and fabrication of goods are two particular areas of my historical-gaming interest.

Like its forebears, Clash of Kings: Guilds and Money begins with a new core class, in this case, the Guildsman. A combination of craftsman and merchant (there are streams for each), the Guildsman represents a PC-playable version of the Expert NPC class from the DMG.

One thing that stood out immediately as I read the class description was the selection of weapons and armour available to the Guildsman. These characters gain proficiency with simple and martial weapons, light and medium armour, and all shields except for the tower shield.

I think that this is perhaps a little too much; it’s hard to imagine that the local seamstress might comfortably wade into battle with a battle axe in one hand and a spiked shield in the other, clad from head to toe in chainmail. Whilst the yeomanry did contribute a large number of troops to mediaeval wars, I think it’s better to model this through multiclassing.

I also suspect that the Maker’s Affinity class ability, which allows a Guildsman bonuses for the use of items, could potentially be open to abuse. Essentially, he (or she) receives unnamed bonuses—which stack—based on the quality of their items and their familiarity with their manufacture.

Although implied, Clash of Kings: Guilds and Money does not explicitly state that Guildsmen must specialise in a particular field, and so, it might be possible to gain not only bonuses to hit and to the Max Dex of their armour, but also multiple bonuses to Move Silently by wearing soft shoes and a cloak that doesn’t rustle much, etc.

On the upside, however, the Guildsman class takes into account various grades of masterwork items, and the importance of social interaction to merchants. There is a slight error in the merchant’s Master Haggler ability, but in general, class abilities are handled well.

This is followed by an extensive discussion of the role of guilds in mediaeval society (particularly in England) and is marred, perhaps, only by the repetition of information on Dick Whittington (of cat fame) which was included in the Guildsman class description as an example of a notable guildsman from history.

It also goes into some depth regarding mercantile relationships with crown, peer and clergy, but unfortunately, fails to address the interaction of the growing mercantile class with the common man. The Ciompi Revolt of 1378 is one example from history, but there are countless others, as merchants often benefited from the peasants’ labours and hardships.

Clash of Kings: Guilds and Money ends with an examination of mediaeval English coinage (pounds, shillings and pence), with the standard Gold Piece set at a value of one shilling. A list of basic equipment follows, with prices in £/s/d.

Whilst it provides this list, and a basic conversion rate, beyond mentioning the average annual common wage of £2 10s, it does little to address the greater value (and comparative rarity) of coinage in history, compared to most D&D campaigns. Pegging the gp at 1s (rather than £1) does some good in this respect, but even a masterwork suit of chainmail (worth 300gp, or £15) is pocket-change for any adventurer above 1st level in most campaigns.

At 12 pages, Clash of Kings: Guilds and Money is the equal-longest of the series thus far, but with its occasional editorial deficiencies and omissions with regard to economics and the peasantry, it’s sadly the weakest of the five. Then again, at $USD2.25, it would be unreasonable to expect the definitive work on mediaeval mercantilism.

Clash of History: Witch Trials marks a departure from the purely historical, in that it deals with arcane magic.

Personally, I don’t have a huge problem with this, as far as historicity is concerned—the existence of divine magic (at least to the extent that it appears in D&D) would have had more far-reaching implications. Atheism, agnosticism and secular humanism would have been less likely to come about, and heterodox versions of major religions would be difficult to defend in the face of demonstrable divine power… unless, of course, the heresiarchs of our history had also been able to demonstrate their divine favour.

And if the polytheistic cultures of the classical era had been able to do the same, then all bets are off for a monotheistic Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

On the other hand, small isolated pockets of arcane casters would only have reinforced the paranoia of the so-called Burning Times. They were pretty paranoid times anyway, so I guess that little would change in that respect.

But I digress.

Clash of History: Witch Trials begins with a description of the Witch core class, a variant of the Sorcerer class from the PHB. It takes a rather modern view of the witch, with White and Black paths diverging at 5th level.

The White path focuses mainly on healing, whereas the Black path is the more traditional evil witch, dispensing curses and the like. The nature of these powers depends on alignment: good and/or lawful Witches become White, evil and/or chaotic become Black, and true neutral are left up to GM fiat.

Interestingly, the background text for the Witch states that such people come about only through a nonconformity (voluntary or not) with society—reinforced by the exclusion of Profession as a class skill—and that such nonconformity attracts the attention of the supernatural forces which grant them their powers. Witches perform the ceremonial role of priests and priestesses, although their powers are not directly granted by their deities; instead, they are learnt from other minions.

There’s a copy-and-paste error with one of the White Witch’s healing abilities—which replicates the Paladin’s lay on hands—but it’s nothing major. More confusingly, the Abilities section implies that Int determines save DC for Witch spells, but the Spells section of the class abilities states that Cha is responsible instead.

The following part of Clash of History: Witch Trials details the Witches’ archnemesis: the Inquisitor. Perhaps influenced by Warhammer FRP, inquisitor prestige classes abound in third-party D&D supplements. At least here, though, Rice puts them into context.

Unlike most of its counterparts, Rice’s Inquisitor is not interested in smiting the foes of his faith on the battlefield, but is solely focused on extracting the truth from suspected witches, heretics and the like. In this respect, it’s much closer to history: generally, inquisitors operated on restrained prisoners, people brought to them for their presumed crimes. Its abilities are nothing flashy; it does what it does, and does it well.

There are only a couple of minor problems that I have with the Inquisitor. Firstly, I would add an alignment prerequisite: as an enforcer of canon law, the Inquisitor should probably be of Lawful alignment. Then again, some Inquisitors were noted for their bloodthirsty zeal, cowing commoner and noble alike with their Papal authority.

Secondly—and this holds for the Witch as well—its class abilities are untyped. In a purely historical, nonmagical campaign, you needn’t differentiate whether an ability is extraordinary, spell-like or supernatural, but once you introduce magic and spell resistance, it does become an issue.

The penultimate section of Clash of History: Witch Trials is a history of European witch scares, complete with a summary of the Malleus Maleficarum and a chronology spanning from pre-1000 to 1792, with a mention of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. It’s brief, but it’s good, solid history.

The final page gives a few suggestions as to how to integrate this all into a campaign. Unlike the other PDFs in this series, its contents aren’t a given: every campaign has merchants and soldiers and nobles, but it’s not every one where the world is turned on its head by the very religious institution which forms the backbone of the realm.

All in all, Clash of History: Witch Trials is competent but not especially bold. At $USD2.25, it’s a solid buy. I would’ve liked a bit more of a framework for the Church and for clerical magic in a mediaeval campaign, but there’s only so much you can fit into 11 pages.

The most recent offering in the series is Clash of Arms: Infantry, released just this last month. A companion volume to Clash of Arms: Cavalry, it examines the role of the lowly foot-soldier.

In many ways, this is the toughest ground the Clash series has faced so far. The neglect of horse riders in D&D has its roots in the tradition of dungeoneering; foot-soldiers are the default Fighters, and much of the class’ development has catered solely to this role.

Therefore, Infantry is not merely attempting to fill a neglected niche, but tread well-worn ground in such a way as to distinguish itself from what has gone before. At the same time, however, it must be balanced against the extant Fighter class.

Like its predecessors, the Infantryman class presents a number of different streams: Archer, Command, Man-at-Arms, Scout, Skirmisher and Spearman.

The Archer’s abilities include indirect fire—and it’s hard to see why this isn’t already a long-established part of the D&D corpus—as well as accelerated bow specialisation and rules for infected arrowheads. (This last, however, might better have been handled by existing rules for disease.)

The Command stream, as its name suggests, focuses on control of troops, granting commanded forces rerolls on failed saves, increased overland speed, and the ability to retreat without suffering attacks of opportunity.

The Man-at-Arms’ abilities negate penalties from medium or heavy armour, and allow attack and damage bonuses whilst charging.

The Scout is, essentially, a Rogue of a martial bent, with sneak attack and stealth abilities. The Skirmisher, on the other hand, relies on mobility and speed, rather than heavy armour, to protect him.

Lastly, the Spearman, who long-time readers would know particularly sparks my interest. The Spearman’s abilities revolve around aptitude with the spear (or polearm) and shield, almost always in the context of formation fighting.

Then again, the Infantryman class is not ideally suited to individual combat; his abilities work far better in concert with other Infantrymen. This makes it ideally suited to single-class PC parties; sole combatants are perhaps better modelled with the core Fighter class.

A very comprehensive treatment of the Craft (fortification) skill follows the Infantryman class. D&D lacks rules for temporary fortifications, and Infantry steps in to fill this void admirably. So admirably, in fact, that an Engineer stream may have been a worthwhile addition to the Infantryman.

The PDF ends with an examination of three famous battles (Hastings, Arsuf and Agincourt) in which infantry played a decisive role. Rice recounts these battles in depth.

I do have an issue with the inclusion of Hastings, however. Although it featured the Saxon Huscarls—whom Rice rightly names as one of the most feared infantry units in Europe, and whose survivors later formed the core of the Byzantine Varangian Guard—I don’t feel that it qualifies as a particularly decisive use of infantry. Although their position and their shield wall protected initially protected them from Norman missile fire, the Saxon fyrd‘s lack of discipline in pursuit of Norman cavalry contributed eventually to the defeat of Harold Godwinson and the end of Saxon reign in England.

A far better example—in my humble opinion—would have been the Battle of Bannockburn, wherein Robert the Bruce used cunning, terrain and massed spear to defeat Edward II’s far superior forces, and secure the future of an independent Scotland.

That aside, Infantry presents a good study of the foot-soldier, and adequately shows that organised infantry has long been neglected in D&D—until now. At $USD2.25 and 11½ pages, it represents the same good value as its predecessors.

Taken in their totality, the Clash series has its flaws, but many of those flaws are simply due to the brevity of PDFs of the Phil Reed paradigm—it’s simply not possible to go into depth in less than a dozen pages. Others are editorial issues, a plague sadly common to many products in the hobby.

Despite their flaws, there also are moments of utter brilliance in the Clash series, and there’s more usable material therein than in many single works priced at $USD30 or more. I heartily recommend snaffling up the five, should you get the chance.

I, for one, look forward to future instalments.