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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

2004: Castles & Crusades

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, will releasing the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles to be reviewed. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Picking titles from one anniversary to the next has proved to be easier for some years than others. 1984 was a particularly fruitful year, offering plenty of choices, but the subsequent anniversaries—1994 and 2004—in terms of RPGs and board games have been more challenging. 1994 is difficult because it was at the height of the Magic the Gathering boom, it was before Settlers of Catan would initiate the popularity in board games that we see today, and it was at a time when RPGs were tending towards generic rules. By 2004, board games were truly on their rise to popularity that we know today, whilst RPGs tended to be dominated by their use of the d20 System, the mechanics derived from Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition

Yet at a time when the hobby thought that the d20 System could do everything, Troll Lord Games went and showed you what it did well, not with something new, but with something old. Something old in a slightly new way. What the designers at Troll Lord Games did was strip back the d20 System so that it did not emulate Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, the then current version of the game, but instead emulated older editions of the game. In particular, Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the versions of the RPG that essentially predated Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and then paralleled it (if only for a while).

It began with something small, just as the original Dungeons & Dragons had done—a white box. This was the Castles & Crusades Collector’s Edition or Castles & Crusades: A Guide & Rules System for Fantasy Role Playing. Inside, as was traditional, could be found the three digest-sized booklets, the full set of polyhedral dice, and a white crayon. The three booklets, the 'Players Handbook', 'Monsters & Treasures', and 'The Rising Knight'—the latter the boxed set’s adventure, each no more than thirty-six pages long, aped ‘Volume 1: Men & Magic’, ‘Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure’, and ‘Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures’, the three books of the original boxed set for Dungeons & Dragons, in being plain, simple affairs. Similarly they presented just four character Classes—Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard—who can rise only up to tenth Level; the classic four races—Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human; a goodly selection of monsters, spells, and treasures; and a decent enough adventure in the form of 'The Rising Knight'. Overall the package was pleasingly complete, and at the time in 2004, very well received.

Of course, Castles & Crusades could just been another ‘Retroclone’, a simple emulation of Dungeons & Dragons past. It is not that for one very good reason—which will be explained shortly. What marked it out though as a version of Dungeons & Dragons different to those past—at least until the advent of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition in 2000. What Troll Lord Games introduced to its version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with Castles & Crusades was the SIEGE Engine. This was its core mechanic for every situation bar combat, which worked just like the d20 System. The SIEGE Engine was an attribute check system which divided each character’s and each monster’s attributes into primary and secondary attributes. Primary attributes gave a base target to succeed of 12 and secondary attributes gave a base target to succeed of 18, with primary and secondary attributes determined according to a Class and race. Every situation had a Challenge Level that could be added to the base target, which gave a Challenge Class against which a player would roll and add bonuses for character's Level, attributes, and Class. In play it proved to be a simple means of handling almost any situation in the game.

What this meant was that Castles & Crusades essentially brought coherence to the play of a game like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons without the perceived complexities that had come with Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition. It also did one other thing because as has already been mentioned, Castles & Crusades was not just another ‘Retroclone’, a simple emulation of Dungeons & Dragons past. This was because at time, in 2004, there were no other Retroclones—‘Old School Reference and Index Compilation’ or OSRIC would not appear until 2006. Which means that arguably, Castles & Crusades was the very first Retroclone, the one that other small publishers would be inspired by, if not actually emulate.

In the decade since, Castles & Crusades has continued to be popular. Its publisher, Troll Lord Games would release numerous books and supplements, plus thirty or so scenarios, for the game, the most obvious and useful one being the Players Handbook which contained the core thirteen player character Classes and seven Races as well as the core rules necessary to play the game. In the process, together with Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it would support a style of play that would not be supported by mainstream Dungeons & Dragons  between 2007 and 2014. To celebrate the game’s tenth anniversary, Troll Lord Games has published the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set, a limited edition supplement that supports both the Castles & Crusades Collector’s Edition and Castles & Crusades itself.

It should be made clear that the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set is not simply a new presentation of the Castles & Crusades Collector’s Edition. It is instead a supplement, much in the same way that Greyhawk – Supplement I, Blackmoor – Supplement II, Eldritch Wizardry – Supplement III, Gods Demi-gods & Heroes – Supplement IV, and Swords & Spells – Supplement V were all supplements for the original Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, it could be said that the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set contains similarities to all five of these supplements, so the question is, just what is in the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set? Its content consists of three booklets the ‘Adventurers Backpack’, ‘Of Gods & Monsters of Aihrde’, and ‘The Golden Familiar’, a complete set of Castles & Crusades polyhedral dice—black of course, and for the first three hundred printed, a plate signed by the designers.

The first of these, ‘Adventurers Backpack – Volume 1 of Three Booklets’, is arguably the most interesting of the three. It starts by giving us four new Classes—the Archer, the Avatar, the Thief, and the Magic-User. The first two of these are wholly new Classes, whilst the latter two are interesting interpretations of old Classes. The Archer is a Fighter that specialises in the use of the bow and crossbow, able to grab the initiative if they have an arrow or bow nocked, shoot two arrows per Round, incapacitate with a single shot, dodge incoming arrows, and even fire curved shots. Where the Cleric in Dungeons & Dragons attempts to espouse and live up to the ideals of his deity, in return receiving spells and various god-given abilities, the Avatar is this god given physical, corporeal form. Created to fulfill a particular purpose, an Avatar uses Mana Points to cast both Arcane and Divine spells and can even draw on its Hit Points if tries to cast spells beyond its Level. The Avatar's main power is its deific voice to grant a morale boost, fortitude, enthrall listeners, and even stun them!

The first of the familiar sounding Classes is the Thief. This is not the recreation of the burglar-style Thief that has been with since 1974, but a more social malcontent. The two Classes share abilities, but can now Case a person or location, Distract others, Spin a tale and detect lies, Blend into a crowd, Lay the Path for escape routes, and carry out forgery. It makes the Class much more flexible and yes, perhaps pushes it towards the Rogue of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Still it is very much its own Class, but likes its fellow similar Classes, the Thief here makes full use of the SIEGE Engine for its abilities. The second of the familiar sounding Classes is the Magic-User and just like the new Thief here, it is a new twist on an old name. Where the Magic-User of Dungeons & Dragons has become the Wizard and the Sorcerer, here the Magic-User is a literal interpretation of the name. That is, he uses magic, and by that, we mean magic items. He can easily detect, read, and locate magic, use all magic items, and even create magical items and transfer effects. What this means is that the new Magic-User becomes the ‘magi-tech’ of the party and like the new Thief Class, there is a flexibility to this Class that players can have a lot of fun with. 

The rest of the ‘Adventurers Backpack’ is devoted to a series of ‘backpacks’ for all situations and an array of new spells. The inclusions of these ‘Backpacks’ point towards a fantasy setting in which there are lots of parties of adventurers going out on missions, quests, and so on, enough that some kind of industry has arisen to cater for their needs with off-the-shelf pre-stocked backpacks. All right, on one level they are convenient to purchase rather than fiddling around with the bits and pieces, but on another, there is an artificiality to them. The new spells present lots of new options and include spells for Clerics, Druids, Illusionists, and Wizards. For example, Behold the Blasphemer enables Clerics and Druids to strike down unbelievers, Breath of Light lets them capture sunlight in a vessel to be unleashed later as a simple light or a sudden blaze that can burn the undead, whilst a Wizard or Illusionist can determine what someone is going to do next with the spell Read Others.

‘Of Gods & Monsters of Aihrde – Volume 2 of Three Booklets’ presents an examination of the bigger forces in Aihrde, Troll Lord Games’ house setting for Castles & Crusades. These are descriptions only—this is no Deities & Demigods—of not just the gods, but also the immortal Giants, of Fiends and Devils, and of Goblins. Whilst this is worthy information for the Castle Keeper, it is a pity that there is no application given for this information. Though the province , alignment, and preferred weapons are all given for each entry, but perhaps something more could have been given. Possibly each entries’ preferred spells, drawing upon both the spells given here in the ‘Adventurers Backpack’ and the Castles & Crusades Players Handbook, and possibly other benefits. Of course, this might push Castles & Crusades away from its Old School ethos and letting the Castle Keeper decide.

The third book is ‘The Golden Familiar – Volume 3 of Three Booklets’, an adventure for characters of First and Second Levels. In this adventure the heroes must assault the Castle Aucherwitch in search an ancient artefact that will kill the similarly ancient creature that holds the fortress. Perched high atop a promontory, Castle Aucherwitch can only be accessed via a narrow track that winds around the hill, the path interspersed by gates and fortifications. This makes it both linear and repetitive in play, although it gets a little more interesting in the climax when the adventurers come to face the current owner of the castle.

What the inclusion of ‘The Golden Familiar – Volume 3 of Three Booklets’ highlights is the fact the three booklets in the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set only have one thing in common with each other—Castles & Crusades. Each of the three books in the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set is a supplement for the game, a separate supplement rather a coherent whole. Perhaps if the scenario had been designed to make use of the new character Classes given in the ‘Adventurers Backpack’, then the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set might not feel as disparate as it does.

So ultimately, Troll Lord Games has decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Castles & Crusades by releasing a set of different three supplements and putting them in a box. All right, that is being slightly flippant, but while the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set lacks focus as a whole, each of the individual booklets is generally interesting in and of themselves. Of the three, the ‘Adventurers Backpack’ is definitely the most interesting and will find the most use in a game, though it would be good to see a scenario released that supported their use. As an anniversary celebration, the Castles & Crusades Black Box Set is definitely for devotees of Castles & Crusades. Anyone new to the game should look at the Castles & Crusades Players Handbook.