Review: Castles & Crusades Players Handbook

Troll Lord Games’ Castles and Crusades has been around for quite some time.  It was one of the first retroclones published under the OGL, although it’s not a “true clone”, as its Siege Engine is a massive overhaul of mechanics.  Starting from a first printing that had a horrific layout and serious typos, it’s currently on its Fifth printing, with a nice new full-bleed cover illustration from resident artist Wayne Bradley along with most typos fixed, new encumbrance rules, and revised Barbarian and Illusionist classes.

The game’s Siege Engine is quite a departure compared to all other retroclones.  It ties into a character’s stats to determine how difficult a savings throw will be.  As someone who always wondered why a character’s stats weren’t more vital, this system makes perfect sense to me.  One unusual thing about the game is that the classes are listed before races.  Once you have your stats rolled (or even before rolling them) you choose a class, where each class has a prime attribute.  Most of them make sense: high strength means you should consider a fighter.  High intelligence?  Wizard.  Some have made house rules to change the prim attribute for the Ranger and other classes, but if you’re likely playing as a human you’ll have 3 prime attributes (rather than 2 for all other races) anyways.  As mentioned in my review of Swords & Wizardry Complete, Castles and Crusades doesn’t have any restrictions for races and classes; if you’d like to be a halfling monk, go for it!

The look of the Castles and Crusades Player Handbook has evolved with each printing.  The newest fifth printing has a full-bleed cover; compared to the fourth printing it’s a definite improvement, along with the new logo (although now I want to see all the other books re-released with new covers and the new logo…).  The interior of the fifth printing is now in “full color”, which apparently for Troll Lord Games means “dynamic browns”.  Unlike the new cover, I don’t like the new interior.  Some of Peter Bradley’s images look great in color, even improved.  Many look washed out with all the browns, and a few even look downright strange (the Rogue and Illusionist have blue highlights why?).  Some of the artwork is unfortunately laugh-out-loud horrible.  The Rogue (p. 15) has a comically large right hand and head.  I’m all for “bucking trends”, but does the wizard have to wear that stupid hat in every image?  To counter that, I will say some of the images are nothing short of amazing.  The combat example (p. 129) would make an awesome cover image.  The knight (p. 28) has amazing colors.  Why don’t more, if not all, of his images use colors like this?  I don’t know if he’s using inks, but Bradley’s shading is un-matched.  Now I also like “hand shading” such as Mullen’s cross-hatching, but there’s no denying that Bradley makes excellent use of shading and highlighting, something far more retroclones could benefit from (I’m tired of ugly line-art!).  The new interior may look great on-screen and in their printings, but there’s no doubt that printing to black and white would look horrible.  Like Swords & Wizardry Complete, I may need to just print the new cover out in color, and then print the rest from the previous printing (considering Monsters and Treasure is still black and white, I’d prefer that consistency anyways).

As far as the rules go, not a whole lot has changed in the fifth printing.  The barbarian class has been re-written, as well as the spells available to the illusionist.  The encumbrance rules have been redone as well, but as I personally ignore encumbrance for the most part so that doesn’t really matter.

Along with a character’s prime attributes, the Castle Keeper calculates the Challenge Level for any skill checks, ability checks, and combat.  What’s unique about the Siege system is that for combat an enemy’s level is also taken into account; so even though player characters will increase in level there is still a definite challenge, especially against traditional heavy hitters such as dragons.  Many don’t like that there is this “consistent challenge” throughout a character’s life, but I think it maintains the excitement and danger that’s inherent in a dungeon crawl.

Castles and Crusades has its roots in AD&D 1E (in fact Gary Gygax worked with Troll Lord Games prior to his passing), along with some refinements from later editions.  While I do have an affinity for all the retroclones based around B/X D&D, I personally started with AD&D 2E so I have to admit there’s something about those editions that do “speak to me” in a way.  Are they more epic?; encourage grander adventures, campaign settings, etc.?  It’s certainly not the rules, especially in Castles and Crusade’s case.

Choosing a ruleset these days isn’t easy.  Besides the editions of (A)D&D itself there are so many retroclones, each boasting their set of improvements, refinements and more.  Castles and Crusades is a strong contender, supported by a small but great and fun-loving company.  As one of the first retroclones released it received both a lot of praise by those still playing AD&D 1E and older editions, but it also received a lot of criticism.  Its first printings were riddled with spelling mistakes and other errors.  Multiple printings have brought multiple covers, logos and refinements to the rules.  There’s no doubt a group of players could begin playing within a very short amount of time, while offering more than what some other more basic systems could offer, while still being flexible enough to allow any house-ruling desired.  While I’ve dismissed Castles and Crusades multiple times in the past, it has currently moved back into favor as one of the top choices for my preferred system.

Review: Swords & Wizardy Complete

It took me a long time to check out the Complete edition of Swords and Wizardry. I’ve been a fan of the Core edition for quite awhile now, but I always dismissed the Complete edition as a more “commercial” version.  Of course, that’s hypocritical of me; I also support Goblinoid Games, and they’ve certainly made a strong commercial push as well.

The higher price of the Complete PDF was always a turn-off, and the fact that Frog God Games had run out of hardcovers. I generally prefer to support those who use Lulu or other print-on-demand services for their paper copies. So for this rulebook, it is only because of its recent Kickstarter for a second printing that finally convinced me to purchase both the PDF and hardcover.  The PDF can be purchased from DriveThruRPG here.

Putting aside the changes the new printing have brought (mainly a new cover by Erol Otus and errata/typos fixed), there’s a lot to take from this edition. Compared to Core which only had 4 classes available (if the thief is used), Complete has 9 available, pulled from all OD&D supplements released by TSR before it moved on to AD&D. There’s some that I know I’d never use (Monk and Druid), but it’s good to give other players and DMs more options.

Like the other 2 editions of Swords and Wizardry, Complete is still a game that relies on the rulings of the Gamemaster and the active imaginations of the players to ensure an enjoyable gaming session. Despite a few more rules and options, this is still a rules-light game compared to modern systems.  Complete is rooted in OD&D and its encouragement of actually roleplaying.

Unlike Core, the interior of Complete is totally black and white, including the charts. That’s not a huge complaint, but the colors used in Core are very easy on the eyes. Where Complete does shine is its artwork. I don’t think there’s a single piece I don’t like (unlike in Core), and several of them are nothing short of stunning. Unfortunately the text isn’t as great, as its small size makes it hard to read; this is primarily with the PDF, the hardcover is a bit easier on the eyes.  As the total page-count isn’t very large, I’m not sure why a slightly larger font size wasn’t chosen like in Core.

There is one thing about the Complete rules that does bother me: class restrictions. Of course this isn’t limited to Complete, as it’s something OD&D and AD&D have as well.  Compared to newer editions of D&D and Pathfinder, or the broad classes offered by S&W Core and Labyrinth Lord, Complete basically says no to a lot of options. Want to be an Elven ranger? Sorry, no can do. A halfling assassin? Wrong again. Most of the “non-core” classes are listed as human only.  Now, it would be pretty easy to house-rule that away. But compared to adding a custom class to Core, I’m already having to strip away something from Complete that I don’t agree with. As mentioned later editions of D&D and Pathfinder have no such restrictions; even Castles and Crusades list “typical classes” for each race, but by no means does it restrict a player’s choice. Of course, if I wanted to play an Elven ranger in Core I would need to be an Elven fighter on paper, but simply equip with a bow, etc. to be a ranger in my mind. In Labyrinth Lord and other B/X editions I would simply be an Elf.

The new printing of Complete also leaves some questions in my mind.  The new cover by Erol Otus is definitely an improvement over the first printing, but it’s still nowhere near the excellent Peter Mullen cover of Core (of course I’ll admit I’m a huge Mullen fan and wish for a retroclone solely with his work…).  The PDF I was sent by Frog God Games is a fraction of the size of the PDF for the first printing, the images are horribly pixelated (except for the new cover), and there’s no back cover.  I’ve emailed them to see if this can be fixed.

So compared to all the other retroclones, editions of (O)(A)D&D and Pathfinder, etc. why would one choose Complete?  Well, one reason is just to support Mythmere Games; while Matt may get a small profit from printings via Lulu, the higher costs of Complete (hopefully) offer more support to him as well as to show support for future offerings for Swords and Wizardry.  Would I choose Complete over the Labyrinth Lord AEC?  Probably, since it’s just one volume.  Would I choose it over Castles and Crusades?  Probably so, again since it’s one volume and is superior in layout and readability.  The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to start with the free Core edition.  If you enjoy that game, and Matt’s writing, and wish to have more options, then by all means go for Complete.

DriveThruRPG News Years Sale

DriveThruRPG is having a New Years sale.  Among them are stand-outs such as Trail of Cthulhu, Conspiracy X 2.0, Fading Suns, FantasyCraft, Myth and Magic Player’s Guide, Shadowrun, Traveller, and Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary.  I’ve been looking at all of these in the past, and now they’re all 40% off!  I won’t be able to get many of them (well I could, but too much to read as-is…), but I will certainly be picking up at least a few of them.

So go check it out, 2 days left!

Review: Swords & Wizardry Core

I can still remember the impression the S&W Core Rules, a clone of Original Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, left on me the first time I read them.  I hadn’t read Matt Finch’s Old School Primer yet, but while reading the Core rules the enthusiasm was infectious. It had been a long time since a rulebook had really gotten me excited to play while reading.  There are actually 3 versions of S&W: Whitebox, Core  and Complete.  The first two are available free on the Mythmere Games website, while Complete can be purchased from Frog God Games.  Whitebox clones the 3 original Little Brown Books only, while Complete includes all supplements released for OD&D; Core includes a few items from the first few supplements.  Is the enthusiasm of the writing too much?  Does it take the place of where clear rules explanations and elaboration should be?  Also, does the 3 different editions “water down” the S&W brand/name/experience?

As mentioned above, the Core Rules PDF is completely free (PDF link here). Hard-copy prints can be purchased through Lulu; the prices aren’t too bad, between the low price of Basic Fantasy and the higher price of Labyrinth Lord. Unlike Labyrinth Lord, the Core Rules PDF includes the same high-resolution art you’d get in the Lulu printing; perhaps a small thing, but my mind did take note of that. As I’ve now read the Complete edition, I did notice that the artwork in Core is different from that in Complete. There’s a few pieces in Core that I like, but also a few that I’m not a big fan of (namely the dragon). Besides the art, the layout and look of the Core rules is pretty good. Readability is very good (the text is larger than in Complete), but there are many large blocks of white-space where additional art could have been used.  The charts have alternate coloring in them, making them far easier to read than any other game (Castles and Crusades has alternating colors in the new printing, but it’s two shades of brown).

As noted in the text, S&W Core is a game of brevity.  It doesn’t pretend or try to have rules for everything.  Based on OD&D, it is extremely light by today’s standards: 4 classes (if Thief is allowed), 4 races, and no skills or feats.  This is a game that will need a Gamemaster who’s quick on their feet.  Roll up your stats, pick a class and some equipment, and it’s time to play!  Swords and Wizardry, and by extension OD&D, is made for house-ruling.  While its bare-bones structure may scare off newcomers to RPGs, it can be a great way to begin.  Don’t know how to do something or don’t like what’s written?  House-rule it!  Want a d100 skill system?  BAM, it’s in!  Rather have ability checks based on ability scores, similar to Castles and Crusades?  WHAM, you got it!  Stick to OD&D style, and just describe in narrative to the Gamemaster what you want to do, and he rolls a D20?  Well that’s fine too!  It is also very easy to create your own classes and races, so if the 4 standard ones aren’t enough (or you really want to be a Bard…) it’s simple to add that in.

Again, this may frighten a lot of people.  Some may be better off with Labyrinth Lord, as it has a more concrete but still simple foundation.  But again, it’s hard to not get excited while reading Swords and Wizardry about playing and already brainstorming your own rules.  If you decide to do this and come up with enough changes, you may want to even go so far as to create your own custom document that integrates your rules with Matt’s.  Well guess what?  Here is a link to an RTF text version, provided by Matt, so you can do just that!

Like many retroclones, the Core book is the only one you’ll need to get started playing.  Along with rules for player creation and combat, monsters and treasure are also in the book.  The monster descriptions are kept pretty brief, as Matt wants the Gamemaster to describe the creature to the players in their own terms, and bring a fresh perspective to monsters that have now been around for decades.  Again, for some people that’s not going to be great, while for some they’ll be happy to be given the bare minimum and go off on their own.

Free Dominguez Kickstarter

Yes, another Kickstarter post. This time for the second solo album from Free Dominguez, lead singer of Kidneythieves. This Kickstarter has already met its goal of $30,000 and still has 27 days to go. Unlike her first solo album, this one will feature electric and electronic instruments. I’m excited for what this album will sound like. I haven’t listened to the new Kidneythieves albums yet, but Free has always had a steady output of music, both with a band and solo, and so I’m glad to see her continuing to evolve and to use Kickstarter as a way to get her music out there.