Castles & Crusades, by Troll Lord Games, is one of the more successful OGL product lines; it’s almost a retroclone, using the d20 system from Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition to re-imagine AD&D. This review focuses on the 4th printing of the player’s handbook and monster/treasure manual; you can download a free trial version of the rules here.
As explained by the designer in the foreword, the objective is to create and capture a mood of excitement by providing a rules-light, adaptable rules set for fantasy role-playing that can be explained in under 15 minutes.
IN A NUTSHELL
Fast-playing, rules-light fantasy RPG; has the feel of old-school Dungeons & Dragons with more elegant rules.
Both the players and the Game Master (sorry, Castle Keeper) need this one. The player’s handbook explains how to create a character, and how to run the game. It has a standard structure; an introduction (2 pages), followed by sections on creating and equipping a character (42 pages), magic (68 pages), playing the game (24 pages), and an appendix (in this case, on optional rules for multi-classing - 3 pages). There’s also the obligatory character sheet.
These are the core mechanic, and it’s better to understand them to begin with, so I’ll tackle them out of sequence here. Attribute checks are used for almost everything in the game except rolling to hit in combat; they work like this…
The Castle Keeper determines which attribute is relevant and assigns a challenge class (effectively, a target number). This starts at 12 if the attribute is primary for the character, or 18 if it is not. This is one of the few things I don’t like about the system; why not have the base number always be 12, and grant characters a +6 modifier for a primary attribute?
The CK decides how hard the task is and adjusts the target number accordingly; this sounds vague but actually it’s almost always the encounter level - the enemy character’s level, the monster’s hit dice, etc.
The player rolls 1d20 and adds appropriate modifiers; usually this will be a modifier for his attribute, and perhaps his level - you can only add your level if this is something your character class is supposed to do, for example a fighter wouldn’t add his level while trying to pick a lock, even if the CK allowed him to try; but a thief would.
If the player’s final score equals or exceeds the target number, he succeeds.
Example: Two first-level human characters, Draziw the Wizard and Retif the Fighter (he can’t spell), try to hold a pair of doors closed against a pair of orcs. The Castle Keeper decides this is a check against Strength, which is a primary attribute for Retif (Str 13) but not for Draziw (Str 10).The orcs are 1 hit die monsters.
Retif’s target number is 12 (primary attribute) + 1 (foe’s hit dice) = 13. Draziw’s is 18 + 1 = 19. Both characters roll an 11; Retif adds +1 for his Strength and +1 for his level, scoring 13 (exactly the target), so holds his side of the door closed. Draziw adds +0 for his Strength and +1 for his level, total 12, and misses what he needs by 7; his orc barges through, pushing him aside.
Characters have the usual six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. You roll 3d6 for each one, then reallocate the scores to match your character concept.
Next comes selecting a class from the classic D&D stereotypes: Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, Assassin, Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Illusionist, Cleric, Paladin, Bard, and a new one - Knight. (The knight is a fighter whose abilities grant combat buffs to other party members, similar in concept to the warlord in D&D 4th Edition.) In a break with tradition, there are no prerequisite ability scores for character classes – if you want to play a Charisma 3 paladin, go right ahead. Class determines what weapons and armour the character can use, how many hit points he gets per level, his bonus to hit in combat, how much money he starts with, and how many experience points he needs to level up. Each class also has a list of abilities such as Weapon Specialisation or Move Silently - if you’re familiar with D&D 3rd or 4th Editions, you can imagine this as the game pre-selecting your feats and skills for you. Non-combat abilities rely on attribute checks. As you level up, you unlock extra abilities for your character from the list of those available to his class.
Characters also select a race; options are humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-orcs, half-elves, and halflings. Non-human races have additional abilities, often requiring an ability check to use.
Alignment is the familiar law-chaos, good-evil two axis model. Equipment lists look a lot like AD&D, complete with many different strangely-named polearms. At some point during the process you specify two or three (depending on race) attributes as primary.
Magic uses the Vancian approach common in D&D up to and including 3rd Edition; a spell-caster prepares his spells from a book or through meditation, and once he has cast them, they are gone until he rests and re-memorises them. Levelling up increases both the power and number of spells the character can memorise.
Casting a spell automatically succeeds, but the target may get a saving throw - this is an attribute check against the appropriate attribute, e.g. Constitution for a poison effect or Intelligence for an illusion.
Playing the Game
This explains the care and feeding of ability checks, and combat. In each combat round, characters and monsters act in descending order of initiative (determined by each rolling 1d10, no modifiers). A character’s action may be to attack, to cast a spell, to move, to use an ability, or to use an item (perhaps a magic wand). One can move up to half normal distance and still attack, or charge (gaining penalties to armour class, but a bonus on damage).
Attacks are similar to attribute checks; the target number is the foe’s armour class, and rather than using the character’s level as a bonus, one uses a bonus to hit depending on class and level, but otherwise they are the same. Successful attacks inflict damage based on the damage dice for the weapon, claw or what have you; damage reduces the target’s hit points, and when it runs out, it is incapacitated - simple. If it goes to -10 hit points, it dies. Combat is abstract; no figures, no battlemats, if the CK says you’re in range, you are, enough said.
Turning Undead is an action for clerics or paladins only, requiring a Wisdom check. Saving throws are attribute checks - and you might need any attribute, so there is no obvious dump stat.
There are also rules for languages, vision, time, etc; advice on how to create a balanced party; and an extensive example of play.
MONSTERS & TREASURE
This book is for the Castle Keeper only. As you might expect, it’s a big book full of monsters for the characters to slay, and treasures both mundane and magical they might find in the lairs. It also explains how to award experience, and how to create new monsters or treasure. Monsters include the standard list from the OGL d20 rules (i.e., no beholders or mind flayers), and a number of new beasties such as the fleshcrawler and prysmal eye. Treasure, likewise, is largely familiar to the D&D grognard, but the game also adds lands, titles and the services of powerful NPCs or monsters as kinds of treasure. Experience is mostly awarded for killing things and taking their stuff, but there are guidelines for story awards and roleplaying too.
If you’ve played any version of D&D other than 4th Edition, you’ll be up and running with this in no time. It has the high adventure, fast and flexible feel of Original D&D, but with more consistent and elegant rules.
While as a rule I prefer skill-based rules rather than class and level systems, I think the latter are a better fit to dungeon crawling. I must try using C&C together with Dungeon Bash…