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Sunday, 7 June 2015

Dungeons & Dragons by Crom!

When it comes to the Old School Renaissance, we are spoilt for choice. All of them, from OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) and Swords & Wizardry to Labyrinth Lord to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay offer the means to create and run games in an older style of the ‘old school’ style of Dungeons & Dragons. In doing so, all draw upon both Dungeons & Dragons and its sources and as diverse as those sources are—from the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series and the ‘swords & sorcery’ of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories to the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and high weird fantasy of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories—and as hard as they try, in many cases, most never really escape that certain veneer of American Tolkienism that Dungeons & Dragons has always had. With its infusion of weird horror, heavy metal, and the early modern age, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay is a very notable exception, but there is also another exception—Crypts & Things.

Published by D101 Games, Crypts & Things is a standalone RPG based upon Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry that makes various changes to old school Dungeons & Dragons in order to reflect its inspirations.Rather than drawing upon fantasy in general, Crypts & Things draws upon Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, and L. Sprague de Camp's Swords and Sorcery anthology for its inspiration. In other words, the ‘Swords & Sorcery’ subgenre. To support this subgenre, Crypts & Things does not adhere solely to the tenents of the Old School Renaissance, but in a radical move employs a number of modern design elements that make this a very different game to standard Dungeons & Dragons

Nevertheless, Crypts & Things is still a Class and Level game, characters have the same set of six attributes, it uses Armour Class, a twenty-sided die for rolling attacks and making saving throws, and so on. It is though, an entirely humanocentric game, with no other Races available to play other than Human, and whilst just like Dungeons & Dragons there are only four Classes, they are very different. They are the Barbarian, the Fighter, the Magician, and the Thief—and all have a certain martial bent. The Barbarian, based on the first version that appeared in White Dwarf #7 in 1977, is enraged rather than scared by Fear spells, makes first strikes with great ferocity, and is generally slightly more resilient to harm. The Fighter has more Hit Points and can select Specialist Combat Styles such as Berserker, Shield Master, Swashbuckler, and Unarmed Combat to gain bonuses in combat. Instead the Magic-User and the Priest, Crypts & Things has the Magician who can cast a wider variety of spells, but they are categorised into White, Grey, and Black, the latter two types being able to break the natural laws, but likely to sap the caster’s Sanity upon said casting. Lastly, the Thief is more of a light, nimble fighter with equally as nimble fingers.

In addition, two of the Classes—the Barbarian and the Thief—have bonuses to certain skills, Climb Walls, Stealth, Sense Danger, and so on for the Barbarian, and the traditional thieves’ skills for the Thief. Now any character can attempt these skills, but these Classes possess their own bonuses for them. The skill system is very simple. Each Class has a single Saving Throw—for everything, including skills—that improves as a character goes up a Level. Successfully roll against this Saving Throw, adding any attribute and Class bonuses, modifiers set by the Crypt Keeper—as the Dungeon Master is known—and a character will succeed at the desired action. Although perhaps a little simplistic, this skill system possesses a pleasing elegance. If there are issues with it, the first is that it is not particularly forgiving as the Saving Throws for all starting characters are fairly high; and second, it would be to ask why two of the Classes—the Barbarian and the Thief—have skills whereas the others do not?

Every character also gets to roll three times on the Life Events table. This generates a little background and it provides further skill bonuses. During play, every character can use every weapon, although not without a small penalty in some cases, every character can fight with two weapons—though the benefits are relatively slight, and every character can Backstab. This reflects the grimmer and grittier nature of the Swords & Sorcery subgenre.

First Level Magician
Strength: 7 (-1) Dexterity 14 (+1) Constitution 10
Intelligence 16 (+2) Wisdom 13 Charisma 17 (Charm 60%)

Experience Point Bonus: +15%
Armour Class: 15 (Leather) Hit Points: 6
Saving Throw: 15

Spells/Day: First Level (1)
Spells Known:
First Level: Cure Light Wounds (White Magic), Divination (Grey Magic), Light (White Magic), Magic Missile (Black Magic)
Second Level: ESP (Grey Magic)

Life Events:
I served a mighty sorcerer (can recognise magic); I was a slave at a royal court (+2 CHA); I was chained to the Pillar of Judgement and had to avoid the pendulum of peril (+2 AC)

Staff (1d6), daggers (1d4), robes, inks, scrolls, pens

When it actually comes to combat, Crypts & Things offers both ascending and descending Armour Classes, though the tables provided for each type do feel somewhat clumsy. The system also offers the characters what is in effect more Hit Points. Actually Hit Points represent the capacity to withstand superficial damage, with a character losing Constitution and suffering serious wounds if he takes damage after all Hit Points have been lost. This damage makes it more difficult for a character to act and is also likely to cause a character to collapse unconscious and further, Potions of Healing and Cure spells only work on Constitution damage! Hit Points are healed through rest and strong drink!!

Crypts & Things also adds a Sanity mechanic. A character’s Sanity Points starts off equal to his Wisdom, but they can be temporarily lost for seeing terrible horrors and sights. They are also lost for casting Black Magic spells. Just like Hit Points, lost Sanity Points can be regained through rest, but critically failed Saving Throws against Sanity or Sanity Points being reduced to zero will also reduce a character’s Wisdom attribute.

Although most the spells presented in Crypts & Things are no different to those given in Swords & Wizardry, it does make a lot of thematic changes to how magic works. The first change is amalgamate the arcane and divine spell lists into one and to replace the Magic-User and the Priest with just the Magician. This is because the gods have abandoned humanity and priests are seen as charlatans. The second is that magic is divided into three types—White, Grey, and Black. White spells promote and protect life, such as Light and Protection from Evil, and are safe to cast; Grey spells involve manipulation and alteration of the natural order, like Entangle and Sleep, and inflict exhaustion or Hit Point loss upon the caster; and Black spells are destructive or contrary to nature, such as Magic Missile and Charm Person, and require either a sacrifice or personal CON loss to learn and casting them will drain the caster’s Sanity Points. Worse their casting may attract the attention the Others, the demonic inhabitants of the Shroud, the invisible energy shield that surrounds us and protects the world, which the Magician draws upon to cast Black spells. This divide between White, Grey, and Black magic nicely presents the Magician with a moral choice every time he casts a spell or goes up a Level and gains more spells. Third, Crypts & Things also removes all spells above Sixth Level and spells such as Raise Dead and Restoration as the ability to transcend permanent death goes against the subgenre.

For the Crypt Keeper there is a complete setting in the form of The Continent of Terror, an island of rudely governed city states, fallen civilisations, ancient ruins filled with horrors and secrets, weird cults and a shining star above a living volcano. Broadly sketched out, it is just one island on world of Zarth, the last refuge of humanity. The Shroud that surrounds it is cracked, allowing Magicians to enter when cast spells like Invisibility and Dimension Door, but also the Others, demonic and alien creatures that wish mankind no end of harm, to slip though... In fact, the majority of the new entries in Crypts & Things’ bestiary consist of Others, though many monsters traditional to Dungeons & Dragons, but appropriate to Crypts & Things are also included. Lastly, there is a short dungeon, ‘The Halls of Nizar-Thun’ as a sample adventure. Its title surely a nod to the highly regarded ‘ The Halls of Tizun Thane’ from White Dwarf #18, this adventure could be expanded to give more of an explanation as to its existence and to give more below the single level given here.

Rounding out Crypts & Things is a set of appendices. These cover everything from an explanation of the RPG’s salient features, crypt creation, and advice for the Crypt Keeper to discussions of the elements of the subgenre—horror, heroism, love, loss, chaos, and the weird, and lists of suggested reading and listening. Some of these sections feel a bit short and underwritten, but they do at least touch upon their subjects.

Physically, Crypts & Things feels somewhat scrappy. It feels as if there is too much white space and whilst the art is decent, it is often used over and over. It definitely needs another edit and a better organisation. Further, it feels unbalanced in places and whilst that is not necessarily a feature of the Old School Renaissance, given the modernisms that Crypts & Things employs, it would be nice to see it slightly more balanced. For example, both the Fighter and the Magician Classes could do with their own skills to balance them against those of the Barbarian and the Thief.

Nevertheless, Crypts & Things is a very likeable entry in the Old School Renaissance family. It does a great deal to effectively model its subgenre—with Classes that nicely reflect Conan, Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and other characters, magic that is dangerous to the caster, and sanity rules that reflect the horrors of the implied setting. It is likeable enough that it makes me want to use it to run old style adventures like ‘The Lichway’ from White Dwarf #9 and ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ from White Dwarf #18 and add the Houri Class from White Dwarf #13. Similarly, it makes me want to take a supplement like Realms of Crawling Chaos and add the Cthulhu Mythos to Crypts & Things. Overall, Crypts & Things: A Swords & Sorcery Roleplaying Game takes a classic inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons and develops it into an engaging Old School treatment of the Swords & Sorcery subgenre.


The good news is that a new version of Crypts & Things is forthcoming. Funded through Kickstarter,  the Remastered Crypts & Things adds new spells, magic, Classes, monsters, fiends, nemeses, setting material, adventures, and more. This has yet to be released, but will hopefully make the improvements that the first edition of the game requires.