Wednesday, August 1, 2007

REVIEW: Castles & Crusades Player's Handbook

Castles & Crusades. The name is certainly evocative of a bunch of guys in a basement up in Wisconsin moving miniatures around in a sandbox while arguing over rules interpretations and constantly searching for their tape measures. The name has history in the hobby… newer players may not recognize it, but older players like me know what’s implied by using this moniker. Many may not consider C&C “old-school.” I will for purposes of this blog, since that’s what its creators set out to achieve… that “old-school” style of play.

When the game first came out, I managed to get the boxed set offered as a “starter kit” of sorts… read it… put it on the shelf and forgot about it (actually, I think I have it packed away somewhere now). It looked no different from a thousand other misfires I’ve seen over the years.

I missed the first printing of the hardback Player’s Handbook… though I’ve been told it had enough spelling and grammatical errors in it to turn the whole thing into a sick joke. Recently, my girlfriend found the second printing of the book in a bargain bin at your FLGS and gave it to me, and that’s the version I’ll be reviewing here.

Details first: Castles & Crusades is an RPG created by the boys at Troll Lord Games… which is based right here in my home state of Arkansas. To many, at first glance, “RPGs” and “Arkansas” don’t seem to go together well. Actually, there are many thousands of us who, after a hard day’s work of distilling moonshine and blowing the heads off random critters, love to sit down to a relaxing game. Personally, I always dreamed of being the first gaming company in Arkansas, but TLG beat me to it… you snooze you lose…

Castles & Crusades Player’s Handbook is a hardbound volume with 128 pages just chock full of gaming goodness and fantasy artwork. From my experienced eye, C&C should provide the framework for an easy to learn, easy to play, exciting fantasy game. I say “should” because I haven’t tried to run a game based on this system, nor am I likely to… but more of that later.

The tome starts with several pages aimed at new players: how to play and what you need. It pretty much assumes you’re a newbie and gives you enough information so that you could walk into an established C&C game and not totally embarrass yourself.

The content is intuitively organized, at least from my perspective, and information is easily found. C&C uses all the basic character classes we’ve come to expect, and throws a lesser known one into the mix: the Knight is the cavalier of UA reborn... in a more playable form.

The overwhelming factor that hit me when reading this book, and apparently has hit others as well, is that C&C is essentially D&D 3rd edition with some tweaks. Notable differences would be C&C SIEGE engine… a simplistic way of checking whether or not the PC succeeds in using a skill or performing a deed. In 3E, the PC possesses a skill and gains ranks in that skill over time; should he check the use of that skill, he rolls a 1d20, adds the number of ranks he’s earned in that skill and attempts to beat a difficulty score set beforehand by the DM. In C&C, the idea is similar, but you simply add your level and attribute modifier to the die roll… a simpler and rather nifty idea that cuts out a lot of bookkeeping for skills, not to mention sticking closer to the “class as archetype” idea.

It gets simpler than that: the difficulty score in C&C is always either 12 or 18. A PC checking against one of his prime abilities would roll against a 12; checking against a secondary ability… excuse, me… attribute… would call for a difficulty of 18.

All in all, a simplistic model that aids in a fast moving game. Since I have never even played in a C&C game, I may be talking out of my ass here, but I suspect this system may become meaningless at high levels. The devout C&C player should feel free to correct me on this if I’m wrong.

Looking through the spells lists for the PCs, I’m hard pressed to find any spells not drawn from D&D… in many cases the names have been changed, but it’s the same old thing.

Lastly, there’s the artwork. Peter Bradley dominates this tome with his rather good art. Peter has great technical skill in providing subject detail, subject depth, and subject variation… i.e. his subjects rarely look like each other. On the other hand, there’s nothing about his art that really grabs me either. I see his depiction of a dwarf and think “ok, a dwarf, ho-hum.” His depiction of a wizard looks like the guy down the road from me who sells watermelons. Peter’s art is not evocative, and the amateurish pen art of 1st edition AD&D inspires more awe that Peter’s best work can conjure. Take out a 1E Player’s Handbook and gaze awhile at the “Paladin in Hell.” Technically inferior to Peter’s work, but evokes much more. Look at the depiction of the thief killing a merchant and taking his gold. Or better yet, crack open a copy of Descent into the Depths of the Earth and find that shitty little ink drawing of the lich living in the large cavern. That thing creeped me out as a kid and still weirds me out today. Also, in each of those examples, there’s plenty going on in the background, whereas in Peter’s stuff, he concentrates on the subject to the exclusion of the background. Technique is fine, but detail gives flavor to the stew.

Overall, as I stated above, C&C comes off as a variant of 3rd edition D&D… even down to the artwork. I repeat this because it begs a question: why go to the trouble of creating a game that is essentially a knock-off of a more popular game… and not a very well fleshed out knock-off at that?

I don’t know, and I suspect few do. In any case, there is an interesting rumor that came to me about a year ago from one of the former test-players of C&C during its formative stages. I’ve since had that rumor repeated to me by another former test-player, and since both guys are pretty trustworthy, I give that rumor some credence.

As I was told, Troll Lord Games set out to create their own gaming platform… having been a d20 publisher and seeing the writing on the wall in regards to the future of that venue… they felt a separate game on which to base future products was in order. So they created Castles & Crusades, and in its original form it was very much like 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So much, in fact, that someone squealed to WOTC, and the Wizards came down on TLG… citing copyright violations, unauthorized deviation from the SRD, etc… you know, the same things people keep saying about OSRIC. The Trolls, not wishing to be sued over trivial crap, quickly modified C&C to bring it in line with the SRD and the OGL… and thus you have the version that lives today. Is this true? I don’t know, but it explains things.

WHY I WILL NOT PLAY THIS GAME: if I wanted to play the 3E style, then I’d stick to WOTC’s D&D. Their books are more fleshed out and provide better support for the game. By my lights, C&C is like your girlfriend’s 17 year old sister who has a crush on you and is trying to play the same game your girlfriend does. Just as I prefer women old enough to vote, I prefer games that are somewhat matured. When I picked up Cook’s D&D back in the early 1980s and started playing, I had the benefit of a game that held several years of designing experience.

Given that, I may return to C&C five years down the line or so, provided TLG is still in business, and see how the game has grown. I expect good things.

In my opinion, for C&C to make it past its small following and achieving any significance in the RPG market, its best chances right now are to pray that HASBRO kills the D&D line of products and creates a vacuum for the many thousands who adhere to the 3E style of play. Until then, C&C will never graduate past cult status and gain a significant foothold in the industry.