Wednesday, June 27, 2012

About Crypts & Things

I’m not writing a review about Crypts & Things because I was one of its playtesters. So, instead of an Augury post, I’m gonna write a – completely partial – analysis of this awesome game. Oh, and even if I wasn’t a playtester I would do it. Because it’s indeed awesome! You were properly warned. This quasi-review was based on the hardcover edition. Crypts & Things is a 146-pages, B&W book.

Crypts & Things is a retroclone that manages to marry two great things – the Sword & Sorcery genre and the Swords & Wizardry rules. In other words – this a D&D White Box-derived RPG built to emulate the best elements of the Sword & Sorcery genre, like the fictions from Howard and Leiber; and no, this isn’t just another retroclone claiming to “restore” the S&S roots of D&D. This time it is for real. Want examples? No Cleric class, no Alignments, Black/Grey/White Magic division, Human as the only (playable) race… must I keep going?

Crypts & Things was written by Newt Newport of OpenQuest fame. The game is based on the famous S&S hack, created by Akrasia, from Akratic Wizardry. In fact, you can find Crypts & Things’ main inspiration on material from that great blog.

Like Swords & Wizardry, Crypts & Things is a very light and open-ended rules system, excellent for groups that want to get right into the action and for Referees that love abstract (but intuitive) rules and ad hoc rulings. 

Crypts & Things uses the same old Ability Scores, but with a more generous bonus progression (modifiers usually go from -1 to +3). Intelligence 15+ grants you an extra spell, while Wisdom is now linked to a PC’s Sanity (more on this later). Charisma determines the maximum number of hirelings, besides indicating the PC’s base % on Charm attempts.

The game has 4 classes: Barbarian, Fighter, Magician and Thief.

The Barbarian is purely Conan-esque – you’re good at survival and have a good sense of self-preservation; you prefer to fell your enemies quickly (the first strike ability) and fly in berserk rage instead of running away when subjected to Fear effects. As I said – you’re Conan.

The Fighter is a combat master – you have access to all weapons/armors, has better HPs (great design choice), multiple attacks and specialist combat styles (another excellent rule from Akratic Wizardry).

The Magician is the one place where Crypts & Things truly shines (and also where the game clearly states that it is pure Sword & Sorcery). Magic here is divided in Black (necromantic and damage-dealing stuff), Grey (divination and more traditional spells) and White (healing and protection) – all types of spellcasting deal exhaustion to the spellcaster (loss of HPs). Black magic is the hardest – it not only drains more HPs, but it also can corrupt the Magician by driving him mad. It’s simple. It’s perfect. You can cover a lot of quintessential concepts with this base class, from the dark Stygian priest to the mysterious but friendly eastern mystic.

Crypts & Things’ Thief is more of a rogue, clearly inspired in the Grey Mouser, not in Bilbo. You get a better AC by using light or no armor, you’re good with languages, two-weapon fighting, perception, stealth, among other basic thievery. While Crypts & Things does use a Skill system (more on it), it keeps its Old School roots by giving basic advice about the “whens” and “hows” of rolling Skill checks. The game doesn’t exclude other classes from attempting “roguish stuff” – the Thief just do that better.

After choosing your class it’s time to roll your Life Events – a small but very cool table with the most important events and facts about your early life. “Nice” things like being an ex-slave, a conscript from some tyrant army, an ex-apprentice of a dark sorcerer, a survivor from some twisted game/dungeon/ruins etc. Each event gives you not only background ideas, but also small mechanical benefits.

Equipment is standard for Sword & Wizardry. Weapon damage uses different dice (instead of only d6s). AC can be either ascending or descending.

Crypts & Things uses Saving Throws as a general task resolution system, another idea originated from Akratic Wizardry’s house rules. This fact is already computed on the character classes, specially the Barbarian and the Rogue.

Sanity in Crypts & Things works similarly to Call of Cthulhu and various other games, by using a pool of Sanity “Points”. This is your Wisdom Ability Score. When witnessing “unspeakable horrors”, the heroes must succeed at a Saving Throw or lose Wisdom. Most of the time this loss is temporary (Black Magic also provokes insanity).

Combat is also Sword & Wizardry standard, except for two things. First, everyone in Crypts & Things can backstab! This is another example of how a small rules’ change can greatly impact a game’s flavor. The second: hit points. Heroes begin the game with maximum HPs and they represent only ‘superficial’ damage. When drained of all HPs, a hero start losing Constitution, which here represents serious wounds. HPs are recovered quickly, while Constitution takes more time.

Crypts & Things has a few advices on magical research and complete rules for hirelings and assistants (although I do miss a ‘lite’ mass combat system).

After the spell list we’re presented to Crypts & Things’ setting of Zarth – a doomed world fated to be destroyed by a red start called Nemesis, growing bigger each year in the nightly sky. Zarth is your classical Sword & Sorcery setting, full of decadent despots and cruel warlords, filled with strange sorceries, elder races and manifestations from the Others (eldritch otherworldly creatures and Lovecraftian stuff). Here’s a small excerpt of the setting’s flavor:

Of Life and Death and Religion

The ancient gods abandoned mankind, and in their stead stand a variety of parasitic deities who only answer prayers when given blood sacrifice. Most Priests are charlatans and the gods they worship a hollow lie.
A dark few worship the Greater Others, spilling vast quantities of sacrificial blood to their masters in return for temporal power and an eternity of damnation. The priests of Mount Terror are such a group, but the cults of the terrible Greater Others are spreading like a disease through the decadent decaying cities.
This is why we practice the arts of Sorcery, sacred mathematics, holy gnosis that transcends the lies of the priest.

Crypts & Things’ setting is described in a very open-ended way, which each region or major city getting a short description, besides an entire map on the continent of Terror.

The following section is dedicated to treasure and magic items. Crypts & Things’ magic items are usually cursed or providers of dubious blessings – very in touch with S&S literature. It also pleases me that “mechanical balance” is not a factor in the creation of these objects.

Finally, we get a full bestiary, filled with otherworldly demons, ghouls, dinosaurs, fishmen, giant apes, serpent men; besides classic fantasy stuff like dragons, golems, elementals (and pluck puddings). There’s also advice on creating monsters and encounters.

Crypts & Things’ has a small dungeon for 1st level PCs, “Halls of Nizar-Thun”. The adventure is very basic, a typical introductory dungeon crawl (albeit one with a nice twist in the form of a cursed magic item).

Crypts & Things’ ends with 14 short Appendixes. There’s a lot of useful stuff here – guidance to running S&S games, random objects, city events, Love Loss (one of my favorites), Khaos! (mutations!), bibliography (guess which Appendix is this?), soundtrack etc.

The book comes with a character sheet.

Crypts & Things isn’t revolutionary or pioneering, but it does manage to do something that many retro-clones and even official d20 games claim to do (but don’t) – it does Sword & Sorcery, using a light rules system, brilliantly. I don’t know why it’s always under the radar on the blogosphere and forums. This is really a cool game, which deserves more attention.