"Castles and Crusades" is a fantasy role-playing game (The name is an homage to the original "Castles and Crusades" society, established in Wisconsin in 1969, out of which the games Chainmail and eventually Dungeons and Dragons emerged.) The Players Handbook is a 128 page hardback that includes all the 'core rules' for the game, though not all the rules you need to play, as there are no monsters included.
Anyone familiar with any edition of Dungeons and Dragons will find many familiar aspects in the Castles and Crusades game. The players make 'player characters' (PCs). This involves rolling up six ability scores (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma), choosing a race (from 7 options) and a class (from 13 options). The campaign is managed by a game master called a 'Castle Keeper' ('CK' for short).
One thing it is important to know about Castles and Crusades, though, is that it is aimed at a specific audience. It will appeal only to players who want a 'rules light' system (e.g. no feats, skills, attacks of opportunity, and so forth -- although, as I will explain later, some of these features can be added to one's C&C game as options) and/or a game with an 'old school' feel (i.e. clear and definite class 'archetypes', an emphasis on diverse character types working together in order to survive and succeed, and so forth.). C&C is not meant to be a 'rules light' version of d20. Nonetheless, it is a 'rules light' game, and I think that it can appeal to many people out there that are looking for an alternative to 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons or someone that wants something similar to, and compatible with, d20 material.
So if you like detailed, tactical combat, lots of feats, skills and prestige classes with which to 'customize' your PC, easy multiclassing and characters who can be competent at any task (with appropriate multiclassing, feat and skill choices, etc.), and so forth, then C&C simply will not be your cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you want a fast paced FRPG that facilitates house-rules and makes playing with a minimal amount of prep work possible, then C&C might be just what you are looking for. In short, C&C is a fantasy role-playing game for those who want something lighter, faster, and more 'classical' in feel than 3E D&D.
The game draws on all versions of Dungeons and Dragons, and with some adjustment, it can easily be used with materials from all editions. It uses the "d20" mechanic to resolve all tasks (combat, etc.), and like 3E D&D, "high is always good" (e.g. C&C armor class numbers and 3E armor class numbers are equivalent).
As it is a 'rules light' system, at least relative to the various editions of D&D, but aspires to be as flexible as possible given its 'rules light' nature. In these respects, it succeeds to an admirable degree. I would say that C&C is, roughly, 90-95 percent compatible with pre-3e material (you can 'convert on the fly' by simply changing the ACs); and 75 percent compatible with 3e material (you can usually 'convert on the fly', but certain multiclass combinations or feat abilities may require some thought, and higher level adventures and monsters will need to be 'toned down' somewhat).
In terms of mechanics, here are some of the essential points:
(1.) The game plays is as quick and easy as D&D. In fact, it is faster, as everything is based on the same d20 + Attribute Modifier + whatever bonus, rule.
(2.) It is not a tactical game. There is no need for battlemats and figures. The combat rules are fast and dramatic. Hence there is no need to worry about 'Attacks of Opportunity', and similar things. (However, you can add more complex rules for combat -- if you want to. I discuss the modularity of C&C more below.)
(3.) Although it is as simple and fast as D&D, it presents you with the same options in terms of race and class as 3E D&D. Whether a dwarf can be a wizard is entirely up to the GM, and the nature of her campaign world. Similarly, as in 3E D&D, there are no level limits.
(4.) Each Attribute has its own value for saving throws. This is one of two areas in which C&C is arguably 'more complex' than 3E D&D. However, the advantage of this approach is that each attribute is important -- there are no obvious "dump stats" in C&C, regardless of the PC's class.
(5.) Primes. A given character has a couple of Primary Attributes, and the rest are Secondary.
Since it is so essential to the system, it may be worth saying a few things about the "Prime" system. Roughly speaking, a "prime" is an ability score (e.g. strength) with respect to which your character is especially trained or skilled. For example, two characters with 18 intelligence are both geniuses, but the character who chooses intelligence as her prime is also well educated and capable of using her "genius" ability with precision, whereas the character with 18 intelligence who does not choose intelligence as her prime is an "untrained" genius. It may be convenient to think of primes as "skill bundles" – characters that choose dexterity as their prime are trained in "dexterity-related" tasks. At least this is how I came to understand the system of "primes".
One prime is determined by the character's class. A second prime is chosen by the character (to represent, on my view, the "preadventuring" interests and training of the character in question). Humans get to choose a third prime -- this is the mechanism to balance humans with the various special abilities of nonhuman characters in C&C.
The base target number for any Attribute check or Save involving a Primary is 12. The base target number for any Attribute check or Save involving a Secondary is 18.
Those are the numbers you must beat to succeed, so you roll: d20 + Attribute Modifier + Class Level - any penalty assigned by the CK due to task difficulty. Beat the number required by your Attribute's status, and you succeed. The Class Level is added only to tasks involving a class-related ability. So a rogue would add her class level to her attempt to climb, whereas a fighter would not (and in fact, a fighter could probably not even try to climb an especially sheer wall, at the CK's discretion).
Alternatively, you can understand the Prime as giving the PC a +6 bonus to any tasks involving that attribute. Indeed, this is probably a more intuitive way to understand the system, at least for those people familiar with 3E D&D.
Attribute checks are also used for saving throws, as follows:
Strength: Paralysis & constriction
Dexterity: Breath Weapon & Traps
Constitution: Disease, energy drain, poison, or breath weapon
Wisdom: Confusion, gaze attack, petrification, polymorph
Charisma: Charm, fear and death attack
So that is the core mechanic for C&C -- the "SIEGE engine", as the folks at Troll Lord Games call it.
The game gives players a great degree of latitude in determining precisely how to employ the SIEGE system in their games. For example, while attribute checks are used for all saving throws, the extent to which they will be used as a de facto skill system, or used to determine the success/failure of various tasks in general, is really up to the group in question. So C&C can accommodate, for instance, both groups who feel that social interactions should be resolved by ‘skill rolls’ (e.g. one should roll to see if the PC can convince the bartender to serve the party another round of ale), and groups who feel that social interactions should be resolved by roleplaying (e.g. the CK should decide, based on the player's attempt to convince her through roleplaying, whether or not the character succeeds at the attempt).
The races in the C&C PHB should be familiar to anyone who has played any edition of D&D. We have humans, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, elves, half-elves, and half-orcs. There are no surprises here, though a few aspects of the C&C interpretation of these canonical races warrants mention.
As presented in the C&C PHB, halflings are definitely hobbits! Halflings are chubby, like to live in holes, and smoke pipeweed. More innovative is the C&C take on half-elves. Every half-elf PC must decide which parent race is 'dominant': the elf or human parent. Based on that decision, the PC gets different abilities. (There is perhaps a small Tolkien influence here. According to Tolkien, half-elves could decide to be 'of Men' or 'of Elves'. Elros, the first king of Numenor, chose to be 'of Men', and thus lived a mortal life, albeit one that lasted 500 years, whereas his brother Elrond chose to be 'of Elves', and eventually became the Lord of Rivendell that we all know and love. Of course, the C&C half-elf is somewhat different from those found in Middle-earth, but there is a certain similarity here that I find charming.) Finally, gnomes are woodland creatures skilled with illusions.
Many of the classes will be readily familiar to players of various editions of D&D. However there are some interesting -- and in my view generally positive -- twists here. For example, the ranger, paladin, and bard classes do not cast spells. Rather, the ranger is presented as the ultimate 'outdoorsman'. The class has many special abilities and skills that reflect this archetype, and thus there is no need for the him to have spellcasting abilities. Similarly, the bard resembles a Nordic skald more than the minstrel/pseudo-spellcaster found in other versions of D&D. More specifically, the C&C bard is quite skilled at combat (the character gets a d10 HD for example, and the second best combat progression rate), and uses their songs and chants to inspire greatness in her compatriots, demoralize or fascinate opponents, and so forth. It is also worth mentioning that the monk is a real 'warrior' in C&C -- he gets a d12 HD, and a decent combat progression. Similar 'interesting twists' can be found in the other classes as well.
The spells of some of the classes definitely invoke elements of the earlier editions of D&D. For example, there are no first level healing spells for druids aside from 'goodberry' (as 'cure light wounds' is once again a second level spell for druids). Similarly, a number of the spells on the wizard's list are once again quite risky in nature. The subject of a haste spell will age one year and might suffer permanent health damage! And only the truly desperate will use the teleportation spell without very careful preparation. These features of the spells in C&C all help to capture the 'old school' feel of the game, and also go a long way in keeping magic interesting and unpredictable. But like so many other aspects of C&C, this feature of the game is eminently tweakable: a group who prefers 'safer' magic could substitute the SRD spell descriptions for some spells without harming the system as a whole.
Positive Features of C&C
A. Faster Prep Time
Because it is a 'rules light' system, it does not take a considerable amount of time to write up stat blocks for monsters and NPCs in C&C. Moreover, the CK will less often have to look up rules to cover unusual situations in his or her games, as the rules that cover all situations are more general in nature. And if unexpected situations emerge during play, it is easy for the CK to draw on C&C's streamlined mechanics in order to improvise a needed NPC, or resolve a particular task or challenge. In short, the mechanics of C&C facilitate 'structured' CK improvisation during play.
B. Faster Play
The game plays much more quickly than 3E D&D -- especially combat. I have run two 3E D&D campaigns (each lasting almost a year), and have tried C&C three times. There really is no comparison here -- it is possible to get through, on average, at least twice as much ‘adventuring’ in a C&C game than it is in a 3E D&D game. It you have a busy schedule and can only squeeze in the occasional session of gaming, or just like a brisk and dramatic pace to your games, then this feature of C&C should appeal to you.
C. Rules 'fade into the background'
Because the core mechanics are so streamlined, the game flows very quickly, and rules questions do not emerge as often during play as they can in other, more complex FRPGs. As a result, everyone at the table can focus on the adventure that is being played, rather than figuring out whether 'doing x will provoke an attack of opportunity', or whether 'spell effect y stacks or does not stack with modifier z'. Of course, this means that the system for resolving tasks and conflicts is more abstract in C&C than it is in, say, 3E D&D. Whether this trade-off is worth it will depend on what you want in your gaming sessions.
D. No Need for Miniatures
It is very easy to run C&C combat without the use of miniatures and battlemats (but of course you can use them, if you want!).
The C&C system gives players a very clear rules structure onto which they can add new rules as they like without 'breaking' or 'unbalancing' the system.
F. Compatibility With All Editions of D&D.
As noted earlier in this review, the simple mechanics of C&C render the game broadly compatible with all editions of D&D. It is easy to convert pre-3E modules 'on the fly' (simply change the ACs by subtracting the original AC from 20, and determine whether the monster's 'good saves' are 'physical', 'mental', both, or neither). Converting 3E modules will sometimes require a bit more work. It should be easy to ignore most skills and feats, though some might have to be reworked as 'special abilities', and because the 'power scale' is lower in C&C, you will probably have to tone down some of the tougher monsters (HD 10+) and higher-level NPCs. Overall though, if you are reasonably familiar with both systems, using 3E modules with C&C should not be difficult at all. And as for campaign settings, the 'rules light' and 'old school' nature of C&C make it an especially appropriate system, in my view, for settings like Blackmoor and the Wilderlands. The fact that the C&C rules facilitate a brisk -- what I would call 'cinematic' -- pace suggest that the system might also be suitable for settings like Eberron or Hyboria. Finally, if you have copies of some old 'Old World' or 'Mystara' products lying around, like the classics 'The Grand Duchy of Karameikos' or 'Dawn of the Emperors', break them out! You can use them 'as is' with C&C.
Castles and Crusades may NOT be the game for everyone. It will not appeal to gamers who like intricate and detailed combat systems, or who demand a lot of 'crunch' in order to customize their characters. Rather, C&C is targeted at those people looking for a 'rules light' FRPG and/or a FRPG with a definite 'old school' or 'classical' flavor. Moreover, the system has been designed to be modular in nature, so it encourages the use of house rules and variants. Hence it should appeal to people who like to tweak the rules in order to suit their own campaign settings or views concerning a particular class or race. If you fall into any of these categories then C&C is definitely worth checking out!