This year at GenCon we had the pleasure to meet with Tim of Troll Lord Games to talk about “Castle and Crusades”. I had heard about this game in passing so we took the time to talk with Tim and get the skinny on the game. We will be posting that interview soon, so check back in the coming week.
"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 Core Mechanics
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).
Races and Classes
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!
The wonderful thing about role-playing games are that there are so many different kinds out there. There are some games out there with almost no rules, where everything in the game is about telling a story. There are some that are played with cards, and some that played with tokens or poker chips. There are even some out there with a several rules that don’t use any dice.
The most obvious example of this kind of game is Dungeons & Dragons. The Forgotten Realms setting is one of the best settings out there that is full of life and rich vibrant cultures. However when 4th edition was released the fun of roleplaying seemed to have been removed from the game.
Fantasy Craft is very similar to D&D 3E and Pathfinder, to the point that you can actually use your old modules and monster manuals with the Fantasy Craft game. There's a little bit of conversion to do, but frankly, if you're committed enough to make a character for this game, you've probably got the free time to translate your kobolds.
Whereas Pathfinder sought to ‘patch’ D&D 3.5, Fantasy Craft takes the core of the OGL 3.5 and uses it to build a game that could best be described as first a cousin rather than a sibling. Frankly, I like it more than trying to salvage the most cumbersome aspects of 3.5, but even for those with an affinity for the old stuff it’s close enough to warm the cockles of any nostalgic 3.5 gamer. There are plenty of classes, many of which are tooled for things OTHER than combat (I know right?). The upshot is that Fantasy Craft spends ample time supporting things other than combat, so that these classes are viable.
Spell casting is done entirely with a skill based system and encounter-based skill points. Tons of feats help customize your spellcaster’s abilities within this system so that no two spellcasting PCs should come out the same. “Divine” magic works in a sort of modified 3.5 domain style system, which are called Alignments. Alignments provide a satisfying set of rules and flavors to separate the divine casters from arcane casters (to use 4th edition parlance). If there’s one place that the system is different than 4th edition is that different character types FEEL very different. For some, this is a great draw, for others this smacks too much of the unbalanced older days of D&D. For me, it’s a neutral aspect, I miss the variety of old D&D, but I’m glad that I can finally play a rogue and not be completely worthless.
Fantasy Craft’s treatment of social stats, adventuring downtime, holdings, and more are one place I would say it’s definitively better than any other rivals out there. It’s quite possible to cannibalize these aspects to fit into any d20 type game. However it’s not a perfect fit into all games, but the rules on Reputation, Prizes, Favors, Holdings, and Down Time are well thought out, balanced, and a satisfying numeric solutions to the rather difficult task of fairly adjudicating these sorts of actions in most fantasy RPGs. For anyone that has thought about taking their campaign away from the adventuring-only archetype this provides tons of great ideas and guidance to make that process simple, satisfying, and ultimately rewarding for both DMs and Players.
Combat includes a system where there is no more hit points. You've got vitality, and you've got wounds. Wounds are pretty much set from the beginning of the game, but vitality can go up every level. Wounds represent the actual punishment your body can take, and vitality represents how good you are at dodging damage. So initial damage will have to get through your vitality first, and your vitality also heals between battles. This is good news, because it means you don't have to stop after three rooms of a dungeon and barricade the doors so everyone can get some sleep to heal before carrying on with the adventure.
There is actually a bunch more examples of cool modular rules, if I were to keep going. Fantasy Craft is a very robust set of tools meant to allow you to play exactly the kind of fantasy game you like, whether you prefer gritty games with gruesome weapons or high adventure with magical blunderbusses. If you take the time to weed through and pick the rules you want, and dump the ones you don't, you'll have a campaign and a game that is your own personal creation.
This game is a very well-designed game that will provide for an incredible amount of flexibility and fun!!
Publisher: Rather Dashing Games
Designed by: Michael Richie
Art By: Grant Wilson
Publisher's site: Rather Dashing Games
While at GenCon this year We got to sit down once again with the wonderful people over at Rather Dashing Games to play their hit, "Dwarven Miner".
"Dwarven Miner" is, as the Grant Wilson and Mike Richie put it, an "intuitive two-tiered fantasy themed crafting table-top" game. The game is an fun and interesting amalgamation of mining, crafting, and fulfilling orders.
That accurately describes the three phases of play. I am fond of the simplicity of the rules, that they allow for variation, and are not hard to understand. I am a firm believer in games that offer ease of play for a wide audience, and in that respect, "Dwarven Miner" delivers.
Inside the box, you have the following items:
The game board
The Rule Manual
A Deck of 80 Item Cards
A Deck of 60 Resource Cards
A Deck of 42 Patron Cards
4 Backpack Cards
8 Vault Cards
4 Colored Player pieces
6 Plain White Dice
1 Sheet of stickers.
The hardest part of this game actually involves those last two items. Before you play your first game, you have to put stickers on the blank dice, based on a set of patterns that are indicated on the back of the rules manual. This allows for some slight variations on things, if someone sets up the dice wrong. But, it also opens up the options for some interesting variations! What if one were to buy 6 more blank dice, and create variations of the pattern? The mutability of this structure just leaves my mind pondering all kinds of new possibilities.
Each player receives one backpack card, and is dealt three patron cards. Each patron card has a list of items they are looking for, an effect that is activated when their order is fulfilled, and a number of victory points. The victory points associated with a patron is relatively proportional to the difficulty of obtaining the items that they are looking for. Before play begins, players can trade in their initial patrons, for other patrons.
Play is separated into 3 phases; mining, crafting, and fulfillment. During the mining phase, you are given six dice to roll. Each one of these dice has a series of images corresponding to one of the resource cards. Each one may also have an Orc, and a Burglar. You can roll the die until you get the resources you need, unless the Orc appears. When the Orc is showing on one of the die, that die is set aside and can not be rerolled. The Burglar, on the other hand allows you to steal from other players. The more burglars that you roll, the more you can steal!
Once you are happy with your roll, you move on to the crafting phase. Using the resources obtained in the mining phase, you may wish to start crafting items. Each item has a "recipe" for what is needed to create it. Using the example from the rules manual, a "Tome of Wisdom" requires 2 "Arcane Crystals" 1 "Alchemist Powder" and 1 "Mithril". If you can not use any of the resources that you obtained, you can place them in your backpack or vault for later. Each backpack however, can only hold 4 resources, and 2 crafted items. When you are finished crafting, move on to the Fulfillment phase!
The fulfillment phase, is where you finally fill the patron's orders. "IF" you can not fill a patron's order, your turn ends. Place your items and resources in your backpack, and discard anything that can not fit. If you can fulfill a patron's order, turn in the crafted items, and place the patron face up in front of you. You immediately gain victory points as indicated on the card, and the ability described on the card takes effect. After that you draw two new patron cards, and discard cards out of your hand down to three patron cards.
And that is the basics of the game in a nutshell! Quick, easy and straightforward. Game play theoretically moves pretty quickly, and an entire game can be played in as little as about 20 minutes. The game is fun, fast, and palatable to a wide audience.
This game is a game that is playable for a wide range of ages and backgrounds, and speaks to the geek in all of us. If you're looking for a sort of intermediate level game to take the next step in introducing your non-gaming friends to the wide world of gaming, this could easily fill that role.
This is a simple game, with plenty of replay value. The art lends itself well to the subject matter, and helps to establish the feel of the game. The stickered dice are a nice idea, but I wonder how they will hold up over the course of time. Having the second set of stickers should however be enough to hold up until the inevitable expansion! (and sources tell me, it is coming)
While at GenCon we were introduced to the game Square Shooters. Square Shooters are 9 nine dice that are printed with a full deck of 52 cards plus 2 jokers. Their patent-pending design places the playing card faces on the dice in such a way that popular card hands from poker to rummy can be rolled. For instance, every straight and royal flush card for every suit is on a different die; and every rank card is on a different die! You literally can use them to play almost any playing card game!
The dice are specially designed so you can roll hands for rummy, poker, 21, etc. It’s great when playing with little ones who understand the games but can’t hold 7 cards in their hands. I love that the directions not only come for playing a Square Shooters game, but they list directions for a ton of other games. It is a self contained game, and that can easily throw it into a purse, backpack, or bag and be taken everywhere!
Square Shooters can be literally hours of fun for you and your family, because there are just soooo many games you can use this to play with. I highly recommend this for everybody!
Not only that the wonderful people that created Square Shooters is hosting a Q4 2013 contest which invites creative gamers to submit game designs to their Square Shooters Game Design Forum (Forum.SquareShooters.com). Submissions will be judged and a grand prize awarded for the best overall game design, along with prizes for “best in category.” For registration go to www.thats-how-i-roll.com
So check out this game out and if you are a game design maybe you should try your luck!
Magic Item Compendium Premium Reprint (Dungeons & Dragons 3.5)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 286
Cost: $49.95 ($33.41 at Amazon.com)
Release Date: 07/16/2013 (Originally 3/13/2007)
Wizards of the Coast has done a great job with the premium reprints of Dungeons & Dragons books from past editions. I’ve been especially happy with the adventure collections and the reprints of AD&D 2.5. Having it in my hands now, I have to admit, it’s a wonderful resource for any person who likes to run a Dungeons & Dragons game using 3.0/3.5 rules. Is it necessary? No. After all, it’s missing a lot of basic items, so if you just have the big Compendiums from 3.5 (Rules and Spells) you’re going to be missing out on the common items of all, ranging from simple staves to the mighty vorpal sword or Holy Avenger. So unfortunately, while a fine resource, the Magic Item Compendium is missing a few item and isn’t as complete as I would like it to be.
I have to admit, I was surprised when I saw the Magic Item Compendium on the docket for a premium reprinting back when it first came out. After all, it originally was released in March of 2007 – a little over six years ago. You can find the original quite easily still, and for a fraction of the premium reprint, so unlike a lot of the other premium reprints which were out of print for at least a decade and a half, the Magic Item Compendium reprint feels like it will be a hard sell.
When you first take a look at the premium reprint of the Magic Item Compendium, you can instantly tell the difference between this and the original printing. The original had greenish-blue cover and the art featured a long haired, one-eyed Paladin with a red scroll in one hand and a magic sword in the other. The art and cover design was not very appealing. The premium reprint, however is so much better, it’s hard to put it into words. The cover is bone white with gold lettering and it both looks and feels like a mystical tome. The cover art is simple but amazingly effective. You have a potion with a red stopper and a gold dragon curled around it. The cover also features both etching and embossing, which just makes the book fun to just rub your fingertips across. Had I seen the original Magic Item Compendium back in 2007, I would have derided the cover and not even bothered to look at the contents. With the premium reprint however, I wanted to rip open the shrink wrap and read what lay between the hardcover binding, simply from the cover design. It’s hard to justify paying for just a swanky cover, but if you’re a 3.5 fan and have yet to pick up the Magic Item Compendium, this is definitely the version you want.
The book is divided into six chapters: Armor, Weapons, Clothing, Tools, Magic Item Sets and Using Magic Items. Each chapter gives you a list of qualities or effects to the chapter’s item for a magic effect. Then the chapter moves into specific premade items, for those of you who don’t want to build and calculate your own magic items. Oddly enough, a lot of key, almost iconic powers are missing from these chapters. For example, with weapons you’ll find there is no way to build a Defender, Flame Tongue, Frostbrand and the like, yet you CAN make a permanently blessed weapon. This, to me, is a perfect example of why I didn’t care for Edition 3.5, as it tries too hard to come up with “wacky” or overpowered unbalanced options, but then forgets the core and/or simple ones that made D&D popular and memorable to begin with. I understand they are easily found in the DMG, but the Magic Item Compendium really needed to include some of those iconic powers in the same manner they list all the new ones. This needed to be a one-stop shop, rather than just another weighty tome you carry around just IN CASE you might have a use for it at some point. Most D&D fans would rather be able to have, say, a sword of sharpness and know that, with a certain roll of the die, a limb gets lopped off, rather than to have to keep track of the fact their sword is a desiccating, fleshgrinding mindfeeder with Ghost Strike, and all the different rules, DCs and rolls that go along with it. In an attempt to include every possibility for a magic item, the Magic Item Compendium forgets the most basic and important magic weapons, and also overcomplicated the entire concept of magic items to the point where it feels like all the fun is sucked out of them by this process. I know some people must find having to have a separate piece of paper just to keep track of how to use your weapon fun, but I sure do not fall under that category.
Basically, what I took away from the Magic Item Compendium is that it is for gamers that want to roll-play instead of role-play. It’s for munchkin min/maxing gamers who would rather spend more time looking up precisely how and what to roll (and when) rather than trying to tell a fun story with friends. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not the type of gaming I enjoy. The second edition AD&D DMG has pretty much all the rules you need to make magic items, and it takes up, what, one-thirtieth of the space and works just as well? As does the regular DMG for both 3.0 and 3.5. Now, if you like to design magic items or are looking to supplement a previous list of magic weapons with the sheer myriad of options that the Magic Item Compendium offers, then knock yourself out, as this book works wonderfully as a detailed supplement that is nothing but “100% crunch”, as they say. However, it just doesn’t work as a standalone compendium (which is what the name implies), as it’s missing too much stuff. When you think of a compendium like the rules, spells or Monstrous ones, it implies a book you can just pick up and be the only one you will need for that specific niche. Unfortunately, it’s just not true in this case. I hate to be so negative in this review, as I’ve loved all the premium edition reprints Wizards of the Coast has put out so far, but the Magic Item Compendium just seems to be a mish-mash of well meaning ideas without the necessary common sense to make them stand on their own. I guess when you advertise a book as quote, “collecting the most popular magic items in the D&D game and presents them in one easy-to-reference tome” and its not all there as NONE of the most popular magic items from D&D are in this book AT ALL, I get a little disappointed.
The fun and versatility of the Dungeon Command series has made Flagoon and Revan huge fans of the game. Not only is the game wonderfully fun, but the good folks at Wizards of the Coast have included monster cards for each of the twelve monsters in each kit so you can repurpose them as foes in D&D Adventure System games like Wrath of Ashardalon and Castle Ravenloft. Also these great looking minis can be used in your table top, pencil & paper game as well!!
But with all those choices, the straight Dungeon Command game is quickly becoming one of our favorites. In Dungeon Command you don’t have to worry about the luck of dice rolling in your favor, It comes down to pure strategy when going up against another commander’s mind. The action is quick and bloody and there is plenty of attrition. In Blood of Gruumsh, there are a half dozen types of Orcs to choose from – druids, chieftains, drudges, archers, clerics, and barbarians – as well as a boar, wereboar, an owlbear, and a big, mean, and nasty Ogre.
Read our previous posts about Dungeon Command to get a better understanding of the game play and keep in mind that, while you can play the game with a single faction pack, Dungeon Command is intended to be played with a faction pack for each of the suggested two to four players. Blood of Gruumsh is in stores now so go pick up your copy today!
I recently was invited to play in a new gaming group and it was just my luck that they were playing the new Iron Kingdoms RPG. So for the last few days I have been reading through the new Iron Kingdoms Core Rules book graciously provided by my GM for the purpose creating my character and learning more about the game.. And I have to admit I have been smiling from ear to ear all the time.
The new Iron Kingdoms Core Rules book is a 358-paged full-color hardcover book which contains all the rules and background needed to run games set in the Iron Kingdoms campaign setting. As expected from a Privateer Press product the production quality is extremely high. Artwork and layout are on par with what you’ve seen in any of the WARMACHINE products. It’s a pleasure just to leaf through the book and enjoy the artwork. Yes, it’s that good.
The first section of the book (about 100 pages) focuses on the world of Caen in general and the area of Western Immoren in particular. You get a detailed description of the history of the Iron Kingdoms, the cosmology and an overview of life in Western Immoren. By the way, some of you might not have heard of the Iron Kingdoms before, so let me give you a short introduction: The world of Caen is not your regular fantasy world. Yes, there are the typical fantasy races you’d expect and yes, there is magic, but Western Immoen (which is the area the game is set in) also went through an industrial revolution, which led to all kinds of mechanical marvels like Steamjacks (coal-driven golems), trains, steam engines and firearms. The nations of Western Immoren which are also called the Iron Kingdoms were formed after the successful rebellion against the evil Orgoth Empire who had conquered the area four centuries earlier. Nowadays the Iron Kingdoms consist of the human nations of Cygnar, Khador, Llael, Ord, the Protectorate of Menoth, the dwarven nation of Rhul, Ios, the homeland of the elves and the hostile island nation of Cryx. The Iron Kingdoms are ripe for conflict and there are countless opportunities for adventures.
The second section of the book (about 70 pages) is all about characters. Character creation in the IK RPG is a pretty straight forward process but allows for a huge variety of different characters. You start by choosing your character’s race (Human, Dwarf, Iosan (Elf), Nyss (Elf), Gobber, Ogrun, and Trollkin). After that you pick one of the four archetypes: Gifted, Intellectual, Mighty and Skilled. Each archetype grants the character with a special ability (like an additional die on melee damage rolls in the case of the Mighty) and allows the player to pick once from a list of benefits (like Photographic Memory or Genius for the Intellectual). Archetypes also play a role when it comes to picking careers. Each character gets to pick two careers. Some careers have prerequisites (like Gifted only or Human only), but aside from that you’re free to mix and match.
In my opinion the career system is a stroke of genius. It takes the best aspects of class systems but none of the inherent problems. Class systems have the advantage that they make things much easier especially for new players like myself. But often classes can also be restrictive in certain ways. The careers in the IK RPG provide the character with a set of skills, abilities, spells (if the career allows spellcasting) and starting gear. Each career also comes with a list of skills and abilities a character following said career can learn in the future. By combining two careers you basically get a huge number of different combinations that allow for a wide variety of character types. You want to play a noble mage? Then combine Arcanist with Aristocrat. Your perfect character started out as a priest but decided to join the military instead, why not combine Priest and Soldier? The following careers are in the book: Alchemist, Arcane Mechanik, Arcanist, Aristocrat, Bounty Hunter, Cutthroat, Duellist, Explorer, Fell Caller, Field Mechanik, Gun Mage, Highwayman, Investigator, Iron Fang, Knight, Mage Hunter, Man-at-Arms, Military Officer, Pirate, Priest, Rifleman, Soldier, Sorcerer, Spy, Stormblade, Thief, Trencher, and last but not least Warcaster.
After picking your career you get to increase your character’s stats (each member of a race starts with the same stat profile) and then you can apply some finishing touches. What I like most about the system is that character creation is very quick and quite straightforward while still giving the players access to a huge variety of character concepts. The Character section of the book also contains an extensive description of all the skills and abilities and gives examples for target numbers with each skill.
Then after creating your characters the party comes together and picks from one of the available Adventuring Companies. These companies not only provide a theme and some special benefits, they also give a reason why the characters are working together. Choosing an adventuring company is of course optional and subject to GM discretion, but it’s another idea that could help players and GM to get into the game quicker.
The third section of the book covers the rules of the game. I have to admit that I was actually surprised that the general rules section (including combat rules) is just about 30 pages. Skill rolls are done by rolling 2d6 and adding the relevant Skill Level and Stat. The result is then combined with a target number set by the GM. The game gives examples for appropriate target numbers for all the skills, but an experienced GM may basically use handwaving to come up with target numbers if he or she wishes to. Especially when it comes to non-combat actions the crunch level is surprisingly low.
Things get a bit more complex when combat is involved and the Iron Kingdoms RPG shows its kinship to the WARMACHINE miniature game here. If you have played WARMACHINE or HORDES before, you should feel right at home. The rules recommend that you use miniatures and a battlemap for combat, but there are also guidelines for people who prefer not to. Ranges are given in both inches (for miniature play) and feet, which is something I wish other games would have done as well (D&D 4th Edition I am looking at you!). Explaining all the various combat rules would probably be beyond the scope of the review. If you wish to get an idea of what combat in the IK RPG looks like, check out the WARMACHINE quick start rules which are freely available on the Privateer Press site. As you would expect from a combat system based on a miniatures game there are rules for every situation and there’s not a lot of room for GM fiat when it comes to combat. The combat rules are also a bit more crunchy than I usually prefer but it’s definitely less complex than games like D&D 3rd Edition.
One aspect of the combat rules I like a lot are the Life Spirals. In the case of simple NPCs the game usually just uses Vitality points to track damage. But in the case of important NPCs and Player Character the Life Spiral is used. As you can see to the right each character has a life spiral with 6 branches grouped into three aspects tied to the character’s main stats: Physique, Agility and Intellect. Whenever a character takes damage, you roll a d6 to determine where you start marking off Vitality points. Are there no more unmarked Vitality points in the branch, you move to the next one clockwise. If all Vitality points are filled the character succumbs to his or her wounds. So what’s the deal with the branches then? When all Vitality points of a branch are filled the character suffers from the effects listed next to the Life Spiral. A crippled physique reduces a characters STR by two for example. It’s not as elaborate as other systems, but quite effective.
Another thing I like a lot is the Injury Table you roll on after a character has been incapacitated. The long-term effects of the injuries the character sustained can reach from death (on a roll of 3 on 3d6) to being scarred or even crippled. The table in my opinion perfectly fits into the somewhat gritty feel of the Iron Kingdoms setting.
The next chapter in the book is about Magic. In the Iron Kingdoms there are two kinds of magic traditions: will weavers and focusers. Will weavers use their own willpower to harness arcane energies while focusers tap into the ambient magical energies around them. As a Gifted character you have to choose between those traditions. Will Weavers are a lot like the spell casters you know from other games, while focusers are a bit different. They can use their arcane energies to control steamjacks and also use their magic to boost attack and damage rolls (even for non-magical attacks). The book contains a quite extensive list of spells and each Gifted career has its own spell list. The only thing that bothers me a bit is that the spells are very combat focused and the spell descriptions are extremely short. Some more fluff texts would have been nice there. But this is nothing that couldn’t be remedied in later books.
Gear, Mechanika, and Alchemy are the topics of the following chapter and again it’s one of the highlights of the book. The gear list covers everything your character could ever have dreamed of from a simple knife to Warcaster armor and the iconic Iron Kingdoms Great Coat. The rules for creating your own mechnika like mechanikal weapons or armor are another highlight of the book. For a lot of people (including me) the mechanikal marvels of the setting were what made us fall in love with the Iron Kingdoms, so having some crafting rules at our fingertips is a huge thing! The section on Alchemy starts by giving us some information on the origins and usage of Alchemy in Western Immoren and the rules needed to create Alchemical items in-game. There are basically sixteen primary ingredients alchemists can buy or gather which can be used to mix several alchemical items including grenades.
The next chapter is all about Steamjacks, probably the most iconic aspect of the setting. Steamjacks are mechanikal constructs, not unlike golems in other settings, that are given the ability to think by a magical brain called the cortex. Steamjacks are usually powered by coal and can be commanded by simple spoken commands or by a Warcaster through telepathy. Steamjacks are used in all parts of Western Immoen. There are Laborjacks built for physical labor and the more elaborate military Warjacks. The chapter describes the components of Steamjacks in detail and provides rules for assembling and updating your own steamjack. In addition to that additional combat rules for steamjacks are given, which are – not surprisingly – based on the WARMACHINE rules for steamjacks. There are also rules for steamjack development. Yes, your Warcaster’s steamjack can get better over time and even develop a personality. Thumbs up!
The last chapter is on “Full-Metal Fantasy Game Mastering”. Luckily it doesn’t try to give you game mastering advice you have heard thousands of times before but focuses on what you need to successfully run a game set into the Iron Kingdoms. There are guidelines on how to create NPCs, how to design encounters and the book gives you some advice on what kind of scenarios and campaigns to run. Last but not least some tips on how to play without miniatures are given.
The book concludes with a very short bestiary that looks more like an afterthought than a proper bestiary, a couple of useful (and very good-looking) sheets and an extensive index.
Overall the Iron Kingdoms roleplaying is exactly what I hoped for when I first saw the Privateer Press booth and information on Iron Kingdoms RPG at Gen Con this last year. The production value of the book is top-notch, the career system is pure genius and the background chapters are the most in-depth look on the Iron Kingdoms I’ve read so far. The combat rules are a bit on the crunchy side, but because of the compatibility to the WARMACHINE rules, veteran WARMACHINE players should have no trouble getting into the RPG as well. The only disappointing aspects of the book is the very short bestiary and the lack of an introductory adventure. Luckily Privateer Press already provided an expanded bestiary as a free PDF on their site. The Iron Kingdoms RPG by Privateer Press is definitely a must-have for every Iron Kingdom fan!
When I was younger my friends and I would play Dungeon! by TSR. I was playing Dungeon! before I ever played an actual role playing game, and I remember the fantasy characters and monsters had captured my imagination from a young age. I was crossing my fingers that this new edition of Dungeon! would be as awesome as I remembered it, but I also knew WotC would be making some changes. After all, this is the fourth edition of Dungeon to come out and it would have to mirror Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons (it even has the D&D logo on the game, which previous versions did not), whereas my version of Dungeon! was from the era of first edition red box advance-less D&D. So how does the remake hold up? Honestly, pretty well. What you will find as you read this review, is that Dungeon! is still an amazingly fun budget priced board game that anyone can pick up and fall in love with.
First of all, the package Dungeon! comes in is a fraction of the size previous versions were boxed in. The board is roughly the same, though, in terms of layout. The previous versions of the game had a much more realistic and dingy looking dungeon along with artwork of monsters here and there on the board. The layout is still very similar and the game also has basic rules printed on the side of the board, including what levels are best for each character class. I was a little sad to see how much more hand holding this version of the game is, as even in single digits I instantly got how to play the game and even make house rules for it, but I have to admit having the basic rules on the board is nice for when children invariably lose the rulebook.
Let’s talk character classes, by the way. The original game has Elf, Hero, Superhero and Wizard. Late versions of Dungeon! would change things up and have six different characters: Elf, Warrior, Wizard, Paladin, Dwarf and Thief. This latest version of the game changes things again. We’ve back to four basic character classes, but they are now called Rogue, Cleric, Fighter and Wizard. The Wizard Class is untouched from the original game, the Fighter is the Superhero, Cleric is the original Hero and Rogue is the original Elf class. The Rogue is the weakest class, physically, in the game, but has a 50% chance of finding a secret door instead of the two-in-six chance the other three classes have. I do remember that we used to play with the Elf being able to cast one of each of the three spells in the game to more mimic their “red box” rules, but that was definitely a house rule rather than an “official” one. It was the only way to get someone to play an Elf. The Cleric is just a basic fighter in this game, so don’t look for it to have any spells or healing abilities. The Warrior is exactly the same as the Cleric, except it has a better chance of killing monsters than the Cleric. The Wizard is not very strong, but it can cast powerful magic spells. These spells are limited, and once exhausted, the Wizard has to return to the start space to recharge his or her spells. One thing worth noting is that the magic spells in this newest version of Dungeon! are far more powerful. In the original they gave the Wizard a slightly better chance of success. Here it’s far easier.
So with all this in mind, you’re probably wondering why anyone would play a Cleric or Rogue. God knows we never played as Elves or Heroes as kids, except on rare occasions, because we wanted the toughest and most powerful classes. The answer is simple. To balance out their weaker chance to hit and defeat enemies, Rogues and Clerics only need to amass a total of 10,000 Gold Pieces in loot to win the game. Warriors need 20,000 GP and Wizards need a whopping 30,000! This means Rogues and Clerics can hang out in the easier levels of the dungeon (1-3) where enemies are weaker but there is also less loot. Warriors and Wizards will have to go deeper into the dungeon to face tougher enemies and deal with the greater risk and reward. If all four characters stuck only to Level 1, the Rogues and Clerics would almost be assured a win, as they would collect their totals at a faster pace, even though they are the less powerful characters. So basically, things are balanced out with the more powerful classes having to travel farther, face tougher enemies AND collect more treasure in exchange for more powerful abilities. In fact, with all this in mind, if you played according to the rules, the Cleric, with no special abilities or powerful attacks, actually stood the best chance of winning the game. Of course, I’ve never known anyone that played by the official rules. Everyone I’ve ever talked to had some house rule variant going on for this game, which is part of what has made it so popular and endearing over the decades.
Enemies and Treasure are different from previous versions of the game, but mostly in superficial ways. There are some new treasures along with new artwork. The monsters have been completely reworked. There are a lot of new monsters like Dracolitches and Driders, and the rolls for what kills a monster are tweaked as well. How Magic Swords work has changed too. In the original versions of the game, a Magic Sword had a set bonus to your die roll. The further into the dungeon you went, the more likely you were to find a +2 or +3 weapon. Levels closer to the surface were almost always +1 weapons. In the new version of Dungeon!, when you find a magic sword, you roll two dice. You check the result with what the card says, and if you roll high enough, you get a +2 weapon. Otherwise it’s a +1 weapon. Some may not like the randomization, and there are also FAR less Magic Swords in this edition than in other games, with only a single one appearing in Levels 5 or 6. Again, this is a minor quibble that only long time anal fans of the original version will notice or care about.
Let’s take a look at some monsters to better understand how combat works. A sample Level 1 monster is the Goblin. A Rogue needs a 3 or higher (on 2d6) to kill it. A Cleric needs a 4, a Warrior needs a 2, a Wizard needs a 5, a Fireball spell needs 2 and a Lightning Bolt, oddly, needs a 6 or higher. At Level 3, you might encounter an Ogre. Here a Rogue needs an 8, a Cleric a 9, a Warrior a 6, a Wizard an 8, a Fireball a 4 and a Lightning bolt a 5. In the foulest recesses of the dungeon (Level 6), you might be unlucky enough to come across a Blue Dragon. Here a Rogue doesn’t even get a CHANCE to kill it. Nor does a Lightning Bolt. Clerics and Wizards need a 12 and a Warrior needs a 10 or higher. A Fireball needs a 7 or higher, but still, the odds are against everyone here. Of course, with risk comes reward. A sample Level 1 treasure is a 250GP “Sack of Loot.” At Level 3, you might find a Silver Cup worth 1,000GP. At Level 6? 5,000GP emeralds are not uncommon. Again, this balances out the harsher requirements put on the more powerful classes.
Although the game doesn’t contain any of the house rules that have been accumulated and popularized over the past three and a half decades, it does contain some solo rules for playing a single person version of Dungeon! such as “Treasure Hunt,” where you try to survive long enough to find a specific treasure, “Timed Game,” where you try to see how much gold you can amass in a specific time period, and “Become the Hunted,” where a Level 6 monster chases you around the dungeon trying to kill you before you get the allotted amount of treasure you need.
Overall, I’m happy with the game. I’m glad they got rid of the new classes and PvP rules in the 1989 and 1992 versions of the game which really bogged things down. This is a return (for the most part) to the original late seventies and eighties version of the game that was awesome just the way it was. Playing this definitely brings back memories. Dungeon! is still probably best left in the hands of younger gamers, but even older ones can have fun with this very simple and streamlined dungeon crawl. With a price tag of less than twenty dollars, this is definitely a game any fantasy fan should be on the lookout for – especially if you played one of the earlier editions as a child. Nostalgia abounds here.