Noble Knights – A d20 Guide to Knightly Orders (2002)
Ree Soesbee (Avalanche Press Ltd.)
Upon reading Noble Knights it struck me that had it been published today it probably would have been qualified as an Alt-right sourcebook. Among other things, it describes a religious order of God-fearing Christian Knights that are respected throughout Europe, allow only pure-blooded Germans to join and gain to hit bonuses against The Religion of Peace. What strikes me as interesting after reading it, is that it is not at all the case. Noble Knights is merely a historical supplement that describes the history and organizations of various knightly orders, from the Templars to the Order of St. Michael. You see dear reader, it is in fact not history that is so bizarre, it is our hysterical modern sensibilities.
Noble Knights as previously mentioned is a sourcebook for historical campaigns (with perhaps a sprinkling of fantasy) for the d20 system concerning the titular Knightly Orders. Forget the effete perpetually friendzoned chivalric soyboys who ride around the world looking for an old cup, real knightly orders, so the book assures us, were created for one thing and one thing only; Slaying Moors, Saracens and Turks and retaking The Holy Land for Christendom!
Forget also the glorified highwaymen in steel of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms; Historical Knightly Orders as portrayed in Noble Knights are men of startling, to our modern eyes even frightening, devotion, oathsworn to Chastity, Poverty and Obedience, forsaking all claim to their lands and heritage so they can serve the Church by slaying heretics, guarding pilgrims and shrines, and treating the injured.
It is perhaps a sad reflection on my own nerdliness that I found them immediately relatable since they are essentially history-punk  Space Marines. Exempt from taxation, and sworn to serve God and the Church, the Knighly Orders are the defenders of Christendom in Europe and throughout the Holy land. That’s right bitches! Paladins might be immune to fear but Templars are immune to taxes!
That’s all well and good and everyone likes a bit of Deus Vult every now and then but the 24-million dollar question is of course; is it any good? The answer is…meh. As is no more then par for the course in an Avalanche Supplement, the fluff is mostly on point and provides a very effective overview of the subject matter in question while the crunch is unfocused, sloppy or haphazard.
Each knightly order is given an overview of varying length, describing its nature, history, organization, dress code, coat of arms and methods of initiation. Mechanics are threadbare; joining a knighthood means you either gain a small bonus to hit or AC against a hated foe (usually Muslims, but the Knights of the Garter gain a to hit bonus against all foes of England), a bonus to Heal checks if they are a Hospitaller order and sometimes some sort of minor spellike ability that can be used 1/day (usually something subtle that can be explained as miraculous or the placebo effect like Bless or Cure light wounds). The only other crunch you will find in this book are the relics; each knightly order is given a relic sword, suit of armor and a shield that are essentially magic items.
Noble Knights is well written and the fluff is fascinating at times (though I am a light history nerd so your preference might vary) but in terms of content you can immediately port to the table it is very limited, even if you count adventure seeds, of which there are virtually none. Whether or not you will get any use out of this product is thus predicated upon your interest and familiarity with the subject matter.
In lieu of my normally increasingly terse review format I will instead cover the knightly orders chapter by chapter because they are damn cool.
The first thing that struck me as amusing is that almost the first thing the book covers, after a very general overview, is the existence of female knights in medieval times. While I consider it a superfluous bit (I would estimate the number of female players with an interest in emulating historical medieval crusaders using the d20 system to be astronomically small, even at the height of the d20 boom), the approach cannot be faulted. Rather then the by now habitual rewriting of history to conform to contemporary leftist narratives, the book simply cites historical precedent, however rare and comparatively insignificant.
The Order of the Hatchet was raised from the ranks of the women who contributed to the defence of Tortosa and repelled the Moor when their men would have surrendered, earning them knighthood and voting rights as a result. As far as I can tell from the cited examples, this was the only order that actually did any fighting, with some of the later renaissance-era Orders being open to women (of aristocratic descent, naturally) but seldom making it to actual battlefields. The complete lack of mechanics and the handful of paragraphs devoted to the subject makes it seem like an afterthought but given their relative insignificance a full chapter would have been a waste of time.
The second chapter kicks off the supplement properly by covering what is probably the most famous knightly Order since the Knight of the Round Table: The Knights Templar. Rising in the wake of the First Crusade, the Templars were originally tasked with guarding temples and pilgrims in the newly reconquered Holy Land and quickly grew to become one of the most influential Orders in all of Christendom by combining their vow of Poverty with that most lucrative and unholy of professions; banking!
There is a lot of interesting stuff in this chapter, from the rivalry with the Knights Hospitaller that would eventually culminate with the fall of Jerusalem (again) to their eventual destruction at the hands of who else but the French king Philip, who cajoled the weak-willed pope into Deus Vulting the Templars on charges of heresy. The once proud order would end up being tortured into confessing their sins or folded into other knightly orders but at least their Grand Master went out like a badass complete with a dying curse that actually comes true. There is no mention of his last words, so I will paraphrase to the best of my humble ability; “All my life I have Deus Vult, but in the end it is I who am in turn Deus Vulted. You live by the Deus Vult, you die by the Deus Vult. Cleanse the Xenos, the Mutant and the Heretic. Amen.”
If I must level criticism of this chapter, very much time is spent covering the history of the Knights Templar but little attention is given to what it is actually like to play one, a problem that would persist throughout the entire sourcebook. A restructuring of the chapters with an eye to actual play would have removed the impression that this is a fluff-splat first and second, gaming book third or possibly fourth.
The impression persists with the relics of the Templars, which are all pretty weak. The Sword of Loyalty is pretty interesting for its ability to only deal subdual damage and change the alignments of those so struck to Lawful Good unless they pass a Will save equal to its damage. This implies that Christian Templars are Lawful Good and heretics are not for it to have any effect, which will no doubt offend someone. A magic suit of armor that is just flavor text + AC bonus (and not even particularly good flavor text) and a shield that radiates light are disappointing entries, even for items in a low magic setting. Mechanics are limited to a +2 to hit against The Religion of Peace and the ability to requisition equipment with a Charisma check. Nevertheless, the Templars receive the official Prince Seal of Approval. Deus vult.
The Knights Hospitaller receive similar coverage, being the Templar’s chief rivals to knightly supremacy within and beyond the Holy Land. The Hospitaller are distinguished by their many metamorphoses throughout the centuries, starting out as a mixture of religious crusaders and travelling field medics focusing entirely on the tending of the sick and injured (one imagines there were a lot of injured in the Holy Land circa 1100-1200) after the Rule of Provence before being fused with the remnants of the Templars in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem and changing their names yet again. The knights Hospitaller are in fact one of the most confusing orders in the entire book, changing names to the Knights of Rhodes and turning to piracy (yes, real life had tax-exempt crusader pirate knights, suck on that infidel!) before being virtually obliterated at the hands of the real life Uruk-hai; the dreaded Ottoman Empire (the book goes so far as to point to christian fear of the Saracen and Ottoman hordes as real life inspirations for Tolkien’s Orcs and Mordor). They survived in the worst possible way, after Solyman II decided to “let them go,” which was the medieval equivalent of forcing them to pose in a frilly pink dress and posting their pictures all over social media. Enraged and short on cash, the Knights of Rhodes changed their name YET AGAIN to the Knights of Malta, restarted their pirate operation with only seven ships and gradually built up their forces, until they became so annoying Solyman II attacked them AGAIN for the sequel, which was the history-punk equivalent of Terminator II because it was better then the original, ending with a siege, a desperate last stand and the arrival of a relief army from Spain. Half the knights of Malta, 8.000 regulars, half of the city and 30.000 ottomans later, the sea power of the Ottoman was dealt a crippling blow it would never recover from. Suck. It. Down!
I will not go into great detail about the confusing number of different titles, sub-orders, different rank titles per nation. The actual abilities they receive are fairly tame; a significant bonus to Healing and a bonus to Will saves that is likely to see little use in a low magic historical campaign. Relics include a sword that instead of harming allows you funnel hit points to other people by touching them, causing you to erupt in stigmata (FUCKING AWESOME), a platemail that makes you move faster that was reportedly given to the order by a vision of the Virgin Mary (Now THAT is how you write an origin for a relic) and a shield that allows you to cover anyone within 10 feet. The shields are the weakest of the relics thus far. The Knights Hospitaller receive the Prince Seal of Approval. Deus also Vults.
The Knights of Santiago are the defenders of Spain, with an origin story like a typical 80s action movie; 12 knights take it upon themselves to protect pilgrims and holy sites from Moorish bandits. After kicking so much ass they get asked to become the personal bodyguard of the king Fernando II and refusing, they get knighted anyway in a plot-twist straight out of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Knights of Santiago, like many knightly orders of the period, are characterized by both their effectiveness in battle against the Heathen and by how hard they get screwed over by their own side.
Tired of seeing their hard-won heathen-smiting ruined by the petty civil wars of the Spanish Christian Kingdoms, the order gradually takes over the responsibilities of society that have desintegrated in the wake of yet another war and would eventually turn into the most important knightly order of Spain evar. Predictably, the Order also has about two-three civil wars over the span of several centuries, and one of its GrandMasters was a 12-year old boy.
The Knights of Santiago may have a wife (a vow of chastity being nearly impossible for the amorous latin spirit) and wear the most tricked out armor and weapons money can buy. The superpower of the Knights of Santiago represents a threat to the economies of any DnD campaign setting of Keter-class proportions, allowing them to purchase Masterwork Quality equipment at regular prices (or all their equipment is considered masterwork quality, it is unclear). On the flip side, they must always wear the shiniest shit available. Combines the fabulousness of Liberace with the fantatical murderlust of El Cid. Relics may as well be ported straight into 40k; The Sword of Martyrdom increases in power as the number of opponents increase, the Armour is marked with cross that is red like the Blood of Christ and increases the strength of the Wielder as he takes more damage and the Shield renders the wielder immune to all forms of energy damage (unlikely to matter much in a historical game). If you can’t find something awesome to do with those things you are lost as a human being. I am starting to warm up to the elaborate descriptions of the decorations on the Plate Mail; they help to distinguish them and elevate them beyond a mere statt bonus. The Knights of Santiago are damn cool. Deus Vult.
The story of the portugese Order of Saint James of Compostela is a classic hollywood tale of humble beginnings, excellence, overreach and eventual fall. In keeping with the general historical trend, instead of noble annihilation at the hands of some implacable heathen foe, the king of Castalia destroys them by revoking their tax priveleges.
Their claim to fame came when they recovered the Tomb of Saint James from Moorish occupation. Otherwise, a pretty boring addition to the canon. If White Wolf ever makes a Crusader: The Deus-Vultening this would be the knightly equivalent of the Caitiff . Vanilla. Even their powers are a generic bonus to healing and a bonus to Moors. Blegh. On the plus side, the Sword of Humility is probably the best relic in the book flavour-wise; a weapon that may only be wielded by someone pure of heart that protects against incoming spells and breaks out into heavenly song when wielded in the defence of Spain, making enemies fall to their knees and refuse to fight the wielder is just goofy enough to feel like something out of an ancient legend or faery-tale. Awesome. The armor looks like it was made to be in court but it actually blocks all incoming arrows by desintegrating them five feet in front of the wielder (the description adds so much that a simple protection from missiles would not) and the shield allows you to bull rush better, meh. Should have been a minor knightly order. Deus does not Vult.
The Knights of Calatrava are a splinter group that originally started out as the militant wing of the Knights Hospitaller, but decided that all that tending to the sick was distracting people from the real purpose of being a knight; Cleansing and Burning! It’s odd to take a group of religious warriors and single one out as being the most warlike but if there is anything that characterizes these dudes (again from Spain) it is their absolute dedication to beat the shit out of the Moors. Instead of aristocrats and soldiers finding god, the Knights started out as monks really wanting to smite the heathen scum that was raiding christian lands. Taking their name from a castle on the border that was supposedly impossible to hold against the heathen by the fucking Knights Templar, the Knights of Calatrava earned their knighthood by saying ‘We’ll see about that Sonny Jim!” and holding the fortress with a retired knight and a bunch of monks. In that fiery crucible was born an order of warrior of the utmost devotion. After getting curbstomped in a giant battle with both Spanish and African Moors, they picked up their shit, wiped their mouth, and got right back into crusading. Eventually everyone saw how awesome they were and Pope Innocent III declared a crossover event involving both the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of Calatrava titled Reconquista which culminated in some serious Deus Vulting. Sadly, eventually the Order would become fractitious and corrupt, possibly because their Grand Masters kept dying in the front lines, possibly because of the ascent of the Spanish King Pedro the Cruel (the best name for an evil king evar). Once again the financial success of the knightly order would become its undoing and Pedro started beheading Grand Masters and coveting their lands. Though the order would eventually be disbanded, this would not happen before the Conquest of Grenada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spanish lands. Wicked. Powers include the all important to hit bonus against Moors and Muslims and the ability to cast Divine Favor on oneself once a day. Nice. Also the most likely to ignore questionable parentage as long as the aspirant seeking to join is sufficiently zealous and willing to slay heretics. Relics are a shield that allows you to disarm as a free action 1/turn (good idea actually), The Sword of Devotion that allows you to gain to damage bonuses in exchange for AC penalties and 10 ft. reach and whose wounds fester and cannot be magically healed and armor that allows you to Berserker Rage 1/day. Definitely receives the Seal of Approval. Two Deus Vults.
The Knights of Christ are another Portugese knightly order that appeals only to masochists or guys looking for a challenge. A successor chapter that continued in the wake of dissolution of the Knights Templar, the Knights of Christ never recovered from the deathblow dealt to them and were forced to rely handouts from the Prince of Aragon to survive. One of the few knightly orders that does not include a Vow of Poverty, they are ironically the poorest and all their equipment is shit. They ended up in the clutches of the Inquisition for their Catharic beliefs, and were disbanded in shame. Powers include bonuses on WP and AC against Muslims, but their real power should be the GM patting you on the back and asking you if you are alright every 40 minutes. The relics are rather strange because the Sword is rumored to be used against Christ one day (it will break), the armor was forged by Catharic  mystics and allows you to do something blatantly magical (dimension door) and the shield allows you to turn muslim priests as though they were undead, which has got to be the edgiest power ever but it also implies there are clerics in this quasi-medieval setting so it might be difficult to implement. The relics are cool but this has got to be one of the saddest chapters ever. Deus does not Veult.
After this we get another pickmeup! The Teutonic Knights! German, tall, stoic, respected and feared throughout all of Europe in a way the Templars could only envy, the one criticism that may be leveled against them is that they were obsessed with racial purity and perhaps a little bit more fanatic about the pursuit of German goals then they were of Christian goals. Eventually they would grow so famous and respected as to be asked to take over law-giving and protection duties in many kingdoms, in short, bringing Ordnung to the Galaxis.
The Teutonic knights may be differentiated from prior orders in that their main crusading grounds seems to have been Northern Europe, where all manner of bloodthirsty pagan scum had to be shown the light with fire and sword (literally). The order eventually gets curbstomped by the combined might of Poland and Lithuania. Curiously, the organization is almost democratic, with elected leaders, which may be contrasted against their rather large coterie of non-aristocratic slaves and serfs. They would carve out the nation of Prussia, which would eventually become the model for 19-20th century german society and also the Galactic Empire. Comes with many funky ranks like Hochmeister, Grosskomtur and Tressler. Relics are all featureless of jetblack steel, of weapon-shattering hardness and armor-piercing sharpness. Coat of arms appears to be a black cross
with curved ends at ninty degree angles on a blue field. It goes without saying only those of the purest German stock may join. Deus warily Vults.
After this Avalanche starts devoting some time to the early renaissance knightly orders, which were more like fancy clubs for aristocrats then bands of crusading warrior monks whose only wish is to martyr themselves in the name of Jesus Christ. The Knights of the Garter were modeled after the Knights of the Round table and raised from the finest tacticians in the realm by King Edward, supposedly to in service to Mary, Christ and St. George, but probably to help him become King of France as well. Their origin story is embarrassing and involves the king ignoring a faux pas at court and then declaring that anyone who would see anything wrong with that must himself be evil. Anyway, the Knights of the Garter functioned more like elite Hands of the King then a military force, though they were fully capable in battle. Their number is naturally, pretty small, only 25 at a time. They lack a shield and both their sword and their armor are made to look pretty in court and give social bonuses and lie detection shit. A permanent +2 Class bonus to Charisma and +1 to hit against all foes of England means you are looking at a game that is more medieval James Bond then “Battle Brothahs! For teh Emprah!’ A quaint diversion from the norm thus far.
Order of St. Micheal. Bleh. By this time Knightly Orders would be appointed by kings and function as little more the cheerleaders for the King. Raised by Louis XI because he was jealous of the far more interesting and regrettably less well described Knights of the Golden Fleece, the Order of St. Michael is basically Louis patting you on the back for how much you kissed his ass. The fucking sword relic allows you to make better art (?!?) and the armor gives you a charisma bonus and the ability to take 10 on any court related skill. All these social powers…blegh.
Last and certainly not least, the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre were originally tasked with guarding Jesus’s tomb and are the subject of awe, reverence and hatred in Medieval Europe. It helps that every single one of the fuckers has to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and can only get inducted AT THE TOMB OF JESUS CHRIST. Equal parts proselytisers and mystics as well as warriors, the Knights were controversial because of their creepy Gnostic Beliefs. As a candidate for a sort of History-punk deathwatch they are absolutely essential, and their ominous weirdo reputation means they get awesome powers as well. Relic armor rumoured to be forged from the Nails of the Cross of Christ himself, a relic sword that allows you to break out all manner of cleric spells and Bane/Bless 3/day and cure light wounds as a natural ability for joining them. Some much needed mysticism and pacem alongside all the Veulting. Excellent choice for an interesting knightly order. Deus Veult.
The book ends with short descriptions of several minor orders, some of which are relatively insignificant branches of the Portugese gentry, while others would have been better candidates to devote an entire chapter to then the Order of St. Michael or the comparatively boring Order of St. James. The infamous Order of the Dragon and the controversial Order of the Golden Fleece are interesting reads that sadly, do not receive any magic items of themselves. The Order of the Golden Fleece marks the beginning of the decline of Knighthood in Europe, being founded after the devastating loss against the Turks in 1396. The supremacy of Heavy Cavalry was over, and the status of the knight as god of the battlefield had come to an end in the trenches of Agincourt. A slow dwindling of a magnificent tradition.
Far more useful are the last couple of pages, which describe the general rise and fall of the knightly order as well as important historical events which allow you to make knightly orders of your own. The focus and emphasis is very much on verisimilitude, with game mechanics taking a secondary place.
Despite my enthusiasm for Knights and Crusades and all manner of historical warfare I cannot recommend Noble Knights to anyone but the most diehard of historical fantasy fan, and even then the recommendation comes with a caveat. Provided you do not own nor have the intention of owning any sort of historical treatise that can probably give you a far broader and more detailed view on these fearsome martial brotherhoods of old, Noble Knights can be a pretty useful sourcebook for running knights in historical Europe or the Holy Land circa 1100-1500. For anyone into generic fantasy the bulk of the detail will be utterly useless as anything but vague inspiration and the mechanics behind the knightly orders simple to the point of banality.
The subject matter is awesome but there is a dearth of gameables and parts of the sourcebook seem poorly specced for their intended job, which is to function as a gaming supplement first, historical primer on knighthood second. Still, a well researched bit of fluff that might be of interest to the chosen few. Probably serves to spice up any campaign set in Avalanche’s trilogy of adventures focused on the fall of Constantinople. 4 out of 10.
 I am coining the term to mean real life analogues to fictional objects, persons or events. Perhaps appropriate to the modern age, where many people will be infinitely more well versed in the convoluted chronology of the Marvel Universe then the events that transpired during the Peloponessean War.
 I guess technically all the minor knightly orders described elsewhere in the book would be the Caitiff but the Order of Saint James lacks its own identity which is a damn shame.
 Cathars were a gnostic christian sect and believed that the world was made by Old Testament God, who was also Satan, and salvation and the spiritual world was made by New Testament God, the good guy. As you can probably surmise, this reinterpretation of doctrine did not go over well with the christian church, which responded with its usual tact and patience after the negotiations and missionaries failed to convince them of the error of their ways. Credit where it is due, the Church at least tried to talk them out of it before the Inquisition was involved.