Castles & Crusades Players Handbook (4.6 stars)
Basics: Hardbound, $19.99 for 128 pages: $0.16 per page. The book is smythe sewn (each signature is sewn onto the case and the case glued onto the backboard), and highly durable. It uses a two-column format, with small margins, densely-packed text, and no excess of illustrations. This is a gamer’s book, designed to take heavy punishment and provide a ton of information in a small package. Troll Lords have obviously gone to great lengths to provide value for the money.
Castles & Crusades is a fantasy RPG, clearly based upon the first edition of AD&D but with streamlined d20-like rules – it’s a lean, mean game, which plays like a souped-up version of D&D’s early editions. There’s plenty of nostalgia value for old-school gamers here, but without question the clunkier of the old-edition rules have been replaced with more intuitive game mechanisms.
C&C has been described as “rules lite,” which it is – just as the early editions of D&D were. There’s no question that C&C is less rules-intensive than D&D 3E – but this isn’t a product designed just to reduce the rules. The way in which the d20 system is pruned and reshaped for C&C makes it clear that the designers had a different objective in mind: the game is deliberately crafted to facilitate rapid, exciting action, to maximize the amount of time that can be spent roleplaying, and generally to create a fantasy “feel” in both combat and roleplaying. By fantasy feel, I mean that the rules have been shaped to work in a bit more of a sense of possibility, of not knowing, of drama, and of random chance than D&D 3E, while keeping that unique D&D feel.
The other benefits of a streamlined rules system are clearly apparent as well: just like chess, the minimalist rules create a rich, complex game. A kid can learn the essential rules of C&C well enough to begin playing in half an hour. Preparation time for the referee is slashed to a level that will be inconceivable for those that have only ever played 3E. In many ways, I found the low preparation time to be the game’s greatest boon. It allows very, very quick preparation of adventures and encounters.
What do the rules look like? C&C begins with the same premise as all versions of D&D: a fairly small number of character “classes.” D&D 3E introduced the concepts of “feats” and “skills” to allow players to customize their characters – Troll Lords has not introduced these concepts into Castles & Crusades. Feats simply don’t exist: each class gains particular class abilities at particular levels, and there is no menu of additional capabilities. From reading web commentary on the game, and from my own players, I think this is going to be the most house-ruled aspect of C&C. As mentioned earlier, the C&C system is extremely flexible – adding feats back into the game creates no imbalance between the classes as long as each class gains feats at the same rate. Most house rulings on feats simply mimic the d20 progression of a feat at every third level.
Recognizing that the pre-d20 editions of D&D weren’t very consistent at handling “skill-type” activities, Troll Lords didn’t just eliminate the concept of skills from C&C. Castles & Crusades has its own mechanism for skills, which is just as easy to use as a skill check, but without keeping track of a myriad of individual skills. The system (called the “SIEGE” Engine) simply uses an attribute check to determine success or failure of an attempt to perform a task. A character’s level and ability modifier are added to a d20 roll, which is compared to the task’s relative difficulty (determined by the GM, just as in D&D). There’s an additional twist. Although players don’t get to choose skill points from huge menus of options in C&C, the player does get to identify one or two of the character’s attributes (eg, strength) as “prime” attributes. A prime attribute effectively gains a +6 on skill rolls and saving throws using this ability. The mechanism for a saving throw or skill check is as follows: for a prime attribute, the base success number to roll is 12. For a non-prime, it is 18. The GM may also add a number to represent the task or save’s difficulty. Then the player rolls a d20, adding level and ability modifiers to the result, and the two numbers are compared to see if the player succeeded. This rule, which can be explained in a couple of sentences, adequately replaces the entire framework of the d20 skill system. It lacks the extreme precision of the d20 system, but more than makes up for it in terms of saved time – both at the gaming table and in terms of preparation before the game. It’s interesting to note that even though the “SIEGE Engine” lacks the detail involved in d20’s skill system, C&C still handles this sort of task with far more consistency than any pre-d20 editions of D&D.
Combat in C&C is slightly more abstract than in 3E, but C&C characters have roughly the same range of tactical options they would have in a 3E game. There are rules for overbearing, pummeling, grappling, etc. Unlike D&D 3.5, Castles & Crusades uses “facing.” In other words, the direction in which someone is facing determines when an attack gains a “flanking” bonus (rear sides) or a back attack bonus (directly behind).
The greatest tactical difference between the two games is that C&C does not utilize the d20 “attack of opportunity” rules. This makes combats run more quickly (and thus, more dramatically), although it also makes combat less “realistic,” which can certainly be a downside for some, and it reduces the total quantity of tactical considerations for both monsters and characters. It’s quicker because the characters around based only on their movement rates – not zigzagging around threatened areas or calculating different possible pathways. You just move, and your turn isn’t broken up by someone else making an attack (the one exception to this is if you’re attempting to withdraw from combat with someone, or if you’re the first person to approach a large monster with “reach”). In this regard, Troll Lords has clearly decided – and I agree – that the tactical complexity of movement may add depth to combat, but it isn’t worth the cost in terms of pace and momentum. The rule for withdrawing from combat could have used a more specific statement of what it means to be “in” combat, unfortunately, and the rules also remained a bit ambiguous in terms of how spells work in combat. The rules don’t specifically state that a spell can’t be cast while “in” combat – if they can, there’s no mechanism for disrupting a spell caster who casts a 1-action spell. Hopefully, this will be addressed in the second printing.
That about summarizes the game system described in the Players’ Handbook. I think it’s the best fantasy RPG I’ve played, although it deliberately avoids some of the nice features of D&D 3E in order to keep up the pace and the excitement of play.
On the down side, the book itself could have used another editing run before it went to print. There are several typographical errors and other minor problems strewn throughout. It’s highly worth it to ignore these, but I find them pretty grating on the nerves from time to time. Troll Lords is assembling errata and will correct the problems in the second printing. Errata is posted on the Troll Lords site at castlesandcrusades.com/ca...g_game.htm .
Before I finish, I’ll also mention that C&C is phenomenally modular. You can play it like it is, or you can throw in a kitchen sink of house rules, the parts of D&D 3E that you particularly like, a few advantages and disadvantages from your GURPS game, and whatever else you can think of – it won’t unbalance the game or cause a disconnect with some other part of the rules. Modules from both 1E and 3E can be converted to C&C in just a few minutes. That’s a flexible game system.
The author has played D&D since 1979, beginning with the Moldvay basic set, then moving to AD&D, 2E, 3E, and 3.5. This is a playtested review. I have no affiliation with Troll Lords, and had no part in designing or playtesting the system.