In my post on what I want out of an RPG, I listed Castles & Crusades as an example, so I figured it’s worth going into detail as to why this is a particular variation on D&D that I’ve taken to.
For those unfamiliar, Castles & Crusades sits in kind of a weird spot in RPG trends. They were kind of doing the whole OSR thing before it was such a big deal. Taking advantage of the OGL to more or less back track and do their own take on AD&D1e instead. They now have their sixth printing out, which was born out of a recent Kickstarter they held. On that note, emphasis on printing. So far at least, Castles & Crusades has avoided having separate editions, despite having been first published in 2004. Though to be fair, they’ve still played with revisions to an extent. The basic rules have not gone through any serious changes. But we have seen errata and clarification in each new printing, and in some cases this has been quite substantial. (They heavily altered encumbrance between the 4th and 5th printings for example.) By and large though, all of their material is still compatible across books.
So let’s take a closer look at how it stands out. If you recall the image from the previous post, the book is very much on the thin side, especially compared to other D&D variants. This is in part because the mechanics themselves are kept pretty simple.
They still use the standard D&D attributes of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma. However, they also add an additional distinction to your attributes, where you specify what your Prime attributes are. Typically you get to have two Primes. One will be dictated by your class, the other the player’s choice. (Humans stand apart in this system by getting to choose a third.) The basic idea behind the Prime attribute is that it’s a way to designate the sort of tasks your character excels at. Mechanically this translates to having a significantly lower DC on those tasks. When rolling to accomplish a task or to make a saving throw, you start with a DC of 18 on regular attributes, and 12 with prime attributes, and then modify it based on the difficulty of the challenge. This does mean the player needs to inform the GM (Castlekeeper in this game,) when they are making a check with a prime attribute. Ultimately this is equivalent to a +6 bonus, which is pretty significant. Additionally, players add their attribute modifier, and typically their level to their rolls. (The level bonus being denied at the GMs discretion. Especially in cases where it is something the character would rarely do as a member of their class, as it ultimately is meant to reflect their training.)
Classes in the game are classic and pretty straight forward. You have your Fighter, Barbarian, Druid, Cleric, Ranger, Assassin, Rogue, Knight, Paladin, Monk, Wizard, and Illusionist. One thing I like being that the Cleric and Druid, as well as Wizard and Illusionist both feel very distinct from one another. Their spell lists and abilities being substantially different. (Right down to the illusionist being able to trick his companions into feeling better with “healing” spells.) Important to me, they maintain the modern sensibility that race and class combinations shouldn’t be outright banned, even if some may prove highly unusual. Though the modern sensibility of every class leveling at the same rate isn’t seen here. Some classes level faster or slower than others, as a sort of balancing element.
Castles & Crusades also stands out as being one of the only games with an encumbrance system that I like. (Other than not really having an encumbrance system and just leaving it to common sense between the players and GM.) Instead of a maximum weight, each character has an Encumbrance Rating (ER) that can be quickly derived from their strength score, and then given a bump up if they have strength or constitution as primes. Each item has an assigned Encumbrance Value (EV). If the character exceeds their ER, they start to take the standard penalties you’re used to in D&D. Containers hold a special role here, as they nullify the EV of items stored within, typically limited to holding a number of items equivalent to their own EV, and no single (or stacked) item being more than their total EV-1. So for example a backpack might be able to hold 8 items, each of no more than 7 EV. The idea being that the backpack is an item designed to redistribute weight and make it easier to carry.
Combat is kept pretty simple. Initiative is handled with a d10, acting in descending order. For the most part, character get single attacks on their turn, derived from their base to hit, targeting an opponents AC. Saving Throws are explicitly tied to attributes, each one governing a different type of threat. This does mean that you’re far more likely to avoid damage if it’s targeting one of your prime attributes.
The core rulebook also includes some optional rules at this point concerning multiclassing. They provide two options, though it’s at the GMs discretion as to which would be available, if either. The first very much resembles classic multiclassing. You’re two classes at once, and leveling two classes at once. Meaning to hit level 2, you’d need to acquire enough XP to level both classes. This kinda hurts, but in this situation you are trying to learn and do everything in two classes. They also provide a Class and a Half option. Here, you have your primary class, but also a subordinate class that you’re going to be half as good at. You have the abilities and level bonuses in that class as you would half of your current level. (Meaning you have very, very little from it at level 1, as you naturally round down. Though one change in the 6th Printing is rules for what exactly you get as a level 0 character in a class.)
The short version of what I dig about the game is that it carries a lot of the feel of older versions of D&D. Characters proportionately aren’t that powerful, especially starting out. They go through a long rise to power, and even though heroes are exceptional. Adventuring still feels quite deadly. Classes are highly specialized, but with the ability to select your primes, you can still produce a character that’s just naturally good at tasks that you might otherwise not expect. (For example a wizard with strength as a prime is gonna really stand out as a strong guy early on, even when that’s not his focus or training.) But we still have a lot of modern sensibilities in place to streamline the rules and keep things simple to manage. It basically gives me everything I like about older versions of D&D, while avoiding a lot of the cruft I’m just not fond of.