Tabletop Review: Castle Keeper’s Guide (Castles & Crusades)

Castles & Crusades: Castle Keeper’s Guide Second Printing
Publisher: Troll Lord Games
Cost: $25 (PDF)
Page Count: 351
Release Date: 04/16/2015 (Digital PDF for Kickstarter Backers)/TBD (everyone else)
Get it Here: Link currently leads to first printing)

Truly, the Castles & Crusades Kickstarter from last year is the gift that keeps on giving. If you’re a longtime reader of the site, you’ve seen my reviews of the new Player’s Handbook and Monsters & Treasure. I even showed off the first round of physical merchandise for backers, including leather versions of both of the aforementioned books. Now, with the release of the digital Castle Keeper Guide, the second round of content is getting ready to be unleashed on gamers, and I for one can’t wait.

A word before we begin though. The only real difference between the first and second printing is that the new version is in full colour. The old version of the CKG was essentially the same exact book, just in black and white. Sure some things have been cleaned up like grammar and formatting and some rules have been clarified, but if you already own the original printing of the book, be it digital or physical, this second printing it not something you need. Again, this is NOT a new edition of the game, just a much prettier version of the Castle Keeper’s Guide. I mean, it still has the original 2010 dedications intact. So if color doesn’t matter to you, you can stick with the old version of the CKG. If you’re new to Castles & Crusades or want to upgrade to a much snazzier version of the book, then by all means, keep on reading.

The Castle Keeper’s Guide can be divided into three topics: The Character, Worlds of Adventure and The Siege Engine. In many ways, the CKG is a combination of bits left out from the PHB and M&T to form the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Castles & Crusades. If you are familiar with first and/or second edition AD&D, you’ll see a lot of elements from those games rewritten here. Again, because the CKG is kind of a mash up of supplementary info for the PHB and M&T, it’s perhaps the least necessary of the core rulebooks for Castles & Crusades. Indeed, it is exceptionally easy to play the game without ever owning or even reading the Castle Keeper’s Guide – especially if you are experienced with other high fantasy tabletop RPGs.

“The Character” consists of four chapters. “Expanding Characters” gives you “new” ways to roll up a C&C character. By new, I mean all the methods found in your AD&D2e PHB. However there is much more than that. You can have attribute modifiers based on different versions of AD&D like 2e where a stat with a 9 would give you neither a positive or a negative, or 3e where a 9 would give you a -1 to rolls using that stat. This chapter also covers stats that reach 20 or higher, Beauty (Unearthed Arcana‘s Comeliness and new powers for high level characters. The chapter also includes new racial variants like Deep Dwarves or Orcs as PC races. Chapter 2 is “Magic” and it is just a brief overview of magic in the C&C world. It’s mostly filler like examples of starting spellbooks and the importance/costs of material components. The wizardry stuff is a bit dull but the clerical side is actually pretty interesting with topics like creating holy ground and holy symbols. Illusionists, a separate magic class from Wizards ala 1e AD&D get a really nice write-up here as well. As a big fan of the class I thoroughly enjoyed this. Sure it’s filler, but it’s FUN filler. Chapter 3 is “Expanding Equipment” and covers incidentals you might not always think of in a RPG like rations, room, board and encumbrance. I still remember when DMs would force you to adhere to those things but these days, most games don’t even bring up these concepts. This chapter is mostly just lists of knick-knacks for your PC. The final chapter in this section is “Non-Player Characters: and it’s simply a long look at how to make and play NPCs that will populate your C&C world. The chapter gives you a long lists of occupations along with rules and tips for designing henchmen. Most of what is in Part One is stuff you probably already know, especially if you’re an experienced gamer. It’s nice reading for those of you who like gaming books, but nothing in this first part of the Castle Keeper’s Guide makes this must purchase rulebook.

Part Two, “World of Adventure” makes up nine chapters and consists of half the book. Much like “The Character,” “World of Adventure” is mostly background and filler to help you flesh out your own personal C&C universe. “The World” talks about homebrew campaign design and items like topography, climate, vegetation and biomes. It’s very detailed and worth reading even if you’re not a C&C player due to the sheer amount of information on homebrewing. “The City” is similar to the previous chapter, except it discusses man’s impact on the world, specifically urban environments. Governments, diplomacy, economy and social order all brought up in this chapter. So are building costs, occupations, construction and income. “Dungeons” are the next chapter and like the previous two, the subject matter is really discussed in detail. Here you really learn what it is like to be undergrown. Light, temperature, vegetation, humidity, air quality and more are all things this chapter looks at. Unfortunately, most GM/DMs/whatever I know rarely take these things into consideration. Just a really great job on dungeon ecology here. Chapter 8 is “Air and Water Adventure,” which is an odd title. It talks about how hard it can be to not only write an adventure that takes place on a boat or in the air, but double so to make said adventure fun or enjoyable. I liked the stark honesty about air/water adventures. The only one I’ve ever really enjoyed was Ship of Terror for Ravenloft. This chapter tries to acknowledge the uniqueness of these types of adventure while giving ideas to make them fun and realistic. As such, you get info on ship movement speeds, how to do damage to ships, navigating and combat onboard vessels. The neatest part was fighting from canoes. Just a weird situation. The air section is similar but with an emphasis on flying creatures or spells that let a PC fly. Next up is “Equipment Wastage” which brings up the reality that some GMs let their players walk around or store tens of thousands (or more) of gold pieces along with a dump truck load of rare gems and magic items. Here we are given ways for the Castle Keeper to let’s say “relieve” players of all that treasure so the game stops being a Monty Haul campaign. It also talks about the wear and tear of equipment and how to roleplay it. Very nice! These are great optional ideas most modern games don’t even think about.

Chapter Ten is “Land as Treasure” and that really is the gist of what you’ll find in these pages. It’s about when and how to offer your PCs land and then how to use it as the springboard for potential stories and/or adventures. It even talks about what type of players probably shouldn’t have land. After all, if all they want to do is hack and slash roll-play rather than roleplay, there’s no point in design a duchy for them, right? Anyway, “Land as Treasure” talks about titles, nobility, and what to do with land once you have again. Again, yet another chapter you don’t need to actually play Castles & Crusades, but it’s still a fantastic in-depth look at topics most games just don’t think of, much less discuss these days. I love it. Chapter Eleven is “Going to War” and it’s here when you’ll learn to run large-scale battles. You get information of why kingdoms or people might go to war, and also how to roleplay such a scenario. Really, though, you’re probably here for the grand scale combat ala Battlesystem. Chapter Twelve is “Monster Ecology” and it’s a great discussion on actually roleplaying monsters rather than just using them as something for the PCs to attack. Why is this monster opposing the players. How does it think? What does it want? Those sorts of things are covered here. Way too many games use monsters as a one dimensional, easily exchangeable boogeyman to hack and slash. “Monster Ecology” reminds us that is the exact opposite point of a RPG. After all, if you wanted those type of enemies, you could play Double Dragon or River City Ransom, right? This is another section I think everyone should read, even if they don’t play C&C or even fantasy RPGs at all. It’s that important. Our final chapter in this section is “Expanding the Genre” and it simply brings up how to mix and match pieces from other genres into your high fantasy C&C game. Technology, horror, noir and even post-apocalyptic games can take place in Castles & Crusades. You’re not limited to Conan/LotR high fantasy with the system/setting. Here you’ll find suggestions on how to make things more interesting for your players.

Finally we get to the third section of the book, “The Siege Engine” which lasts for six chapters. The first, Chapter Fourteen, is “Advancing the Game” is about running a game. In many ways, this begins the actual “Castle Keeper” part of the book instead of just being good advice for gamers all-around. Here you get advice on forming a group, running adventures and most importantly, how to start designing your own plots, stories and hooks if you’ve only ever run store-bought adventures. There’s some fantastic stuff here, including ways to make the game runs smooth and what to do about handing out experience points. Chapter Fifteen takes the same name as the section – “The Siege Engine,” which is weird. For those of you who have been waiting for mechanics to rear their head in this book, well here you go. This is really a look at the inner workings of the system and how it differs from a d20/AD&D retroclone. It’s an interesting read, and it lets you see where the designers were coming from, but it’s probably stuff you already know if you’ve ever played a D&D style game before. Chapter Sixteen is “Treasure,” which is odd because two chapters have already talked about treasure earlier in the book. Here the book discusses how to properly balance treasure, so you don’t have a Monty Haul campaign, but also so characters are working for a few silver pieces at high level. It also talks about the different forms treasure can take. It’s not all gold and jewels, after all. Magic items are also discussed here.

Chapter Seventeen is “Iron and Sulfur: Combat” and this is more of an explanatory chapter. How much combat is too much? How much is too little? How descriptive should your combat narratives be? Things like that. It also discusses combat basics, gives you SIX different options for critical hits (rolling a 20) and how battle are affected by terrain, line of sight and surprise. It’s a fine read, but all stuff that might be better off in the PHB. Chapter Eighteen is “Skill Packages” and again, this is probably something that could be/should be moved to the Player’s Handbook. Much of this is a combination of AD&D 2e’s skill system with 3e’s d20 skill system. They even brought back Secondary Skills! It’s kind of nice. They also ad in Advantages, which gives you slight bonuses to specific skill checks. A Dwarf can take Stalwart Courage which gives them +2 to fear checks, for example. There are general, racial and class advantages, all of which have minor effects, but can really flesh out a character. Fun concept! Finally we get to the last chapter in the book which is “Character Death and Fates.” This is a nice summation of how to deal with PC death, be they a single character or a Total Party Kill. You get the classic “You’re not actually dead until you hit -10 Hit Points” from D&D, but also ways a character can die besdies combat. Disease, limb loss, old age, and even different types of infection are covered here. You’ll also find a section on insanity. Most of all though, the chapter talks about how some people might react negatively to a character dying and ways to deal with that. I appreciated that as some people take their gaming WAY too seriously or get attached to their PC more than they probably should.

That, my friends, is the second printing of the Castle Keeper’s Guide Castles & Crusades. It’s a fantastic book and I highly recommend it, although I can’t deny it might be better to divide the book up between the Player’s Handbook and Monster’s and Treasure to make C&C a game with just two core rulebooks. That probably won’t ever happen, which makes the CKG a fun but by no means necessary addition to your Castles & Crusades collection. Much of what is in here are optional ideas and essays about gaming and there is nothing in the CKG that is required to play Castles & Crusades. It’s still a fantastic book. I cannot say that enough, and I can’t wait for my leatherbound edition to arrive in about a week. We’ll do an unboxing of that when it arrives with the second half of the C&C goodies from the Kickstarter,



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