This review of the Castles & Crusaded Players Handbook 6th Printing is only based on the pdf delivered as part of my pledge in the recent Troll Lord Games’ Kickstarter-campaign.
In May last year Troll Lord Games made a highly successful Kickstarter-campaign which goal was to update the last printing of their Castles & Crusades roleplaying game. I followed the campaign with some interest because I have been looking for a fantasy ruleset that could easily be used with D&D modules from the 70’s to the latest Pathfinder and OSR modules of today. There are several other clones of D&D that will do this for you (and I own several of them), but Castles & Crusades looked to be faithful to the roots of rpgs, and still have a updated feel to it. Especially the modularity of the system appealed to me. I ended up backing the Kickstarter, and even put down the money for lots of add ons.
Castles & Crusades is not a retro clone in the way that Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry are (that is, based on the OD&D and B/X sets of yonder), but more akin to a clone of AD&D 2nd edition. Castles & Crusades and Troll Lord Games have a pretty interesting history, involving among others the legendary Gary Gygax, but that is beyond this meager review (google it you lazy bastard!). Now, the 2nd edition of the AD&D rules is what really got me into roleplaying in the first place and it probably is as retro as I’m willing to go. Yes, I’m one of the people that bought the Mentzer Basic D&D and immediately asked why it was not possible to play a halfling thief. So, what’s keeping me from just playing AD&D, and what makes Castles & Crusades different?
At first glance Castle & Crusades seem to deviate very little from AD&D. All the usual suspects are here. Aside from the four basic classes, Fighter, Cleric, Thief and Wizard, you can choose to play an Assassin, Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Illusionist, Knight (I’m guessing this is based on the Chevalier?), Monk, Paladin or Ranger. When looked at a little closer there are a few things that are different about these, surprisingly without feeling overpowered. All for the good in my opinion. The assassin can now be more customized to a non-evil character. The barbarian has abilities that make sense (as a more outdoorsy class, i.e. it is not all about the raging). The Bard has no spells, but gets better fighting ability and some much needed new ideas (Hey! How about a whistling bard!). Druids gets access to some really cool high-level spells (9th level anyone?). The Illusionist is almost unrecognizable and could very well serve as more of a jack-of-all-trades than a magic-user with no fireballs (illusionists can even cast healing spells!). The Knight and the Paladin are sort of similar in my mind, but the Knight is probably more of high-born man-at-arms, than the typical holier-than-thou Paladin. Paladin gets spells though. But the Ranger doesn’t. He is just a woodsman now, albeit a really kick-ass one. The Monk is, as usual, nothing to write home about, and seems a little less awesome than the other classes. The races to choose from is pretty standard. You get your versatile humans, the dour dwarves, the almost alien elves, the down-to-earth halflings, the mischievous gnomes, and the ambivalent and drifting halv-elves and half-orcs.
What is doubly awesome about Castles & Crusades is that it is less restrained. It gives you a bunch of choices and it is up to you to make the most of it. There are no restrictions on which classes you can play with a certain race, and there are no ability requirements. So, you could very well play a half-orc wizard with an Intelligence of 7. It would not be the wisest career choice, but what would you expect with that low Intelligence score? So, my half-orc wizard would not be a very good one, but still playable. To me that is pretty rad. That is the thing. You could make the world’s most unbalanced character, or even the most mismatched and unbalanced adventure party ever, but still have a decent chance in every published adventure from the 70’s to D&D 5th edition. Why? Because of the ingenuity of the core of Castles & Crusades: The SIEGE Engine.
The SIEGE Enginge is what makes C&C really shine, and it is what makes the rules useable with practically every FRPG-module you can throw at it. You see, C&C does not have skills or skill checks. Instead it lets the players select primary and secondary abilities. Of the six standard abilities humans get to select three primary and three secondary. Demi-humans get two primary and four secondary. Your class determines one of the primary abilities (so for instance, and naturally, fighters have Strength as their first primary ability), but you select the other(s) freely. What does this mean? Well, whenever you need to accomplish anything (except for combat, which of course follows basically the same rules they have done for the last 40 years), you roll d20 against a target number, adding your level and your ability modifier to the roll. When you roll against a primary ability you need to beat the target number 12. A check against a secondary ability gets beaten with target number 18 or higher. The target numbers (also called Challenge Base) will vary a bit more than this simplification. Primarily because different tasks will have different Challenge Levels that gets added to the Challenge Base. Any action against a creature for instance will get that creature’s HD added to the target number. This goes for traps, bending bars, climbing a wall, throwing a flaming egg, picking pockets or tricking yourself out of a dire situation. All smooth and streamlined.
There are several excellent things we can extrapolate from this. Firstly, your ability modifier are important for low-level characters (a STR of 18 gives you the normal +3 for instance), but gets less so when you reach higher levels. Secondly, the SIEGE Engine opens up for a whole new level of roleplaying. Of, course Strength is important to the fighter, but what if he also had Charisma as a primary ability. His charisma could be pretty low, but he could still be a smooth talker that easily could sway the ladies or even the merchant. He would just have to beat that 12, as opposed to the Thief who wanted Intelligence and Constitution as his second and third primary. This is a fun and easy system, that will, and should, touch upon every aspect of the game. Thirdly, there are no need for complicated and confusing skill lists. As always, logic prevails, so the Castle Keeper (C&Cs Game Master) would have to be the judge of difficult situations. A Knight who grew up in a desert kingdom would not be able to swim across a river no matter how good he rolled, but the Barbarian, given his special abilities, could maybe skip the roll altogether. The SIEGE Engine is not set in stone, but it certainly is a helpful, and highly modular system. Fourthly, no traditional Saving Throws! That Beholder trying to charm you? Just roll d20 + your ability modifier + your level against your designated target number + the Beholder’s HD. Easy peasy!
The modularity of C&C is something that is often reffered to as its best asset. It supposes that most aspects you like from other games can be incorporated quite easily. You like Pathfinder‘s neverending lists of feats? Fine! Just dump them into your C&C rules and they will probably work. Have you fallen in love with D&D 5th edition system of rolling 2d20 and picking the highest/lowest when you have an advantage/disadvantage. No reason it shouldn’t work with the SIEGE Engine. C&C is probably the best stepping stone for any FRPG that uses a d20 to determine the outcome for most situations. Every action basically relies on the same system and the one roll. You got to love that.
There are some things I dislike here though, and the one thing that seems most archaic to me is how equipment and especially encumbrance are handled. Firstly the equipment lists are soooo long. Don’t get me wrong, I like options and I like lots of them, but these lists seriously needs some editing before even being slightly useful in a fantasy setting. The lists of weapons and armor available are not only confusing, but filled with stuff like Greek Ensemble, Roman Ensemble, Cuir Bouille, Polish Hussar, Cestus, Brass Knuckles, Godentag and so on. I would very much have preffered more generic equipment that you could throw into any fantasy setting without references to actual history and geography. You could of course use any other equipment list, the very generic one from OSRIC comes to mind, but most of them would need some adjustments for damage and armor class. This seems unecessary work for a basic Players Handbook. Extended equipment lists could possibly have been included in the Castle Keepers Guide (which is forthcoming) and it would have been a better solution. Secondly the way C&C calculates encumbrance is too much work for an extremely dull and uninteresting part of roleplaying games. I’m not going to present these rules here, but trust me when I tell you that you would do yourself a favor to ditch them altogether and just go with common sense. All the converting of Strength, Encumbrance Value, Encumbrance Rating, Unburdened, Burdened, Overloaded, plus the work of keeping records of all this is totally not worth it. Make the CK have the final say about how much you can carry and how this affects your movement.
One of the best ways to get a feel for a roleplaying game is the art. No other element of the books we love and cherish so much conveys the world and the creatures and people that populates this world. The best art also makes a line of products immediately recognizable. C&C does not come with its own setting in the basic books, but the art is pretty conform nonetheless. In this 6th printing of the C&C rules they have finally decided upon a cover that is sufficiently striking. The warrior with his sword drawn about to face an Umber Hulk emerging from a magical portal is extremely cool. Sadly I was less impressed with the interior art of the Players Handbook. The colours are more or less dominated with subdued and earthly tones, which is ok, but never astounding. Some of the imagery, especially the ones involving magic of some kind, are pretty good. What didn’t appeal to me so much however is the watercolour feel of most of the colouring. Sometimes it seems like the pictures are blurred, and even smudged, but I’m crossing my fingers that this has more to do with the compression to PDF than anything else. Therefore I’m looking forward to receiving my hard copy of this book, and I’m hoping this is more of an technical issue than an aesthetic choice and the look of the final product.
Further there seems to be an unecessary amount of spelling errors in this book, and the typos get progressively worse the farther into the book one reads. Considering this is called the 6th Printing, and so is actually not a new edition with lots of new text, it is pretty unforgiving that the worst typos are not rooted out by now. Probably a minor detail for most folk, but to me it detracts from the professionalism and dedication one would expect from a quality product. I believe Troll Lord Games wanted this to be the best printing of Castles & Crusades. It is a shame that they did not prioritize a thorough spell and grammar check.
That being said I’m overall very pleased with my pledge in the Kickstarter and Castles & Crusades is now my game of choice when I’m starting a new fantasy campaign for my family. It just gives me that feel of playing AD&D 2nd edition all over again, with some exciting and streamlined adjustments that will make an overwhelming amount of modules available to me. Well done!