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.