Monday, April 9, 2012

A Review I Didn't Want to Write

It is with some sadness that I sit down to write my review of the Castles & Crusades Castle Keeper's Guide, from Troll Lord Games. I say this because I wanted to like it. I wanted my money to be well-spent. But after perusing its Nineteen Chapters (some only cursorily, I'll admit), I can't say that there's enough here to merit the $24.99 asking price for the digest-sized paperback.

Some of my problems with the book stem from very different assumptions about how to run a game; I prefer the old school, which to me means that there are no story arcs except those that arise during play; characters can fail, and failure can lead to death; that most skills can be role-played or reasoned out between a GM and players, and those that can't can be resolved by a die roll, sometimes following an ad hoc estimate of the characters' chances.

For reasons like that, I see no need for, say, Chapter Nineteen, "Character Death". For me, there is no question about whether or not I should 'allow' a character to die if they've run into a fatal consequence of a dangerous environment and the dice don't save them. Even though that chapter is only five pages long, I feel they were wasted. And the suggestion of adding a Deus ex Machina or (worse yet) Fate points to the game is unpalateable to me. (As far as I'm concerned, Hit Points and Saving Throws are the Fate points that shield a character from death.) I also see no need for character Feats or Skill Packages; the whole reason I use a modified SIEGE engine mechanic is so I don't need to mark up character sheets with such things.

Another problem I have is with the writing style; now, anyone who reads RPGs for their literary quality should have their head examined, but even for workaday prose, this volume often waxes far too verbose.

An example: "All attributes are designated as either primary or secondary. The chance for an action's success or failure is based on the attribute's designation as primary or secondary; this determines a check's challenge base. If the attribute being checked against is a primary attribute, the check succeeds if the character's die roll is 12 or greater; primary attributes have a challenge base of 12. If the attribute being checked against is a secondary attribute, the check succeeds if the character's die roll is 18 or greater; primary attributes have a challenge base of 18."

Then, on the next page, we have the same fact, restated: "The Challenge Base is always one of two numbers. It is always a 12 or an 18..."

The chapter goes on to say that there are other ways to conceptualize these numbers, such as the base always being 18, but that rolls off of primes add +6 to the roll (which is how I do it anyway). But then they add bizarre variants such as the base always being 20, but you add 8 for primes and 2 for non-primes, or the base is always fifteen, but you subtract three if the attribute is prime and add three if it's not.


This could be written more succinctly: "All attributes are designated as either primary or secondary. Primary attributes have a challenge base of 12; secondary attributes have a challenge base of 18. Alternately, the base is always 18, but you can add +6 to the die roll if the attribute is prime."

This kind of awkward, verbose writing and restatement of the point permeates the book, perhaps doubling the size.

Another style point is the illustrations; they range from the occasionally excellent (p.99 comes to mind) to the serviceable (most others), but what kind of soft-core boy's fantasy inspired pp. 84, 136, and 166? Sexy is great, but the poses these women strike is about as hard to defend as the chainmail bikini.

That isn't to say that there isn't some useful information here; the chapters on dungeon adventures and Air adventures would be useful for GMs/CKs completely new to the hobby, but I wonder how many people really fit that description. Even there, though, the verbosity and poor editing hinder what should have been a worthy offering.

I sincerely hope TLG puts more thought into their future offerings. I really like C&C as a system, and it is entirely playable with the Players Handbook and the Monsters & Treasure book. But that's just a further reason to steer clear of this volume; it just doesn't have enough meat to justify its price.