Game Date: 2/4/2012
Players: Rusty (DM), Chere, Cliff, Greg, and Matt
Instead of our normal game, we gave "Castles and Crusades" a try. Similar to that "Dungeon Crawl Classics" game we tried last year, Castles and Crusades is a relatively modern attempt to recapture the mechanics of some of the older editions of D&D. (I keep confusing the name with "Crossbows and Catapults", a game that involves using toy catapults to toss checkers at your friend's plastic castle.)
For character creation, we used a generic background system called "Central Casting: Heroes of Legend". The backgrounds are based on die rolls, but these backstories are many layers deep and require a lot of rolling. Various rolls determine all kinds of things about your history. After about forty die rolls we determined that my character was of moderate social status, was orphaned in the forest, became devoted to an Earth-goddess, was conscripted into the heavy infantry to fight a holy war, deserted his fellow soldiers, later served a lord who turned out to be his long-lost father's arch enemy, lost his house when his father burned it down, became good friends with a lawyer who was a former foe, learned to wield an exotic weapon, and is a skilled mountain climber. And mine wasn't even one of the more interesting ones. Some of the other players lost limbs, developed allergies, adopted pets, inherited fortunes, obtained magic items, and were the subjects of dark prophecies. Some of these details affected actual in-game mechanics, like stat bonuses or starting money. Other details were just for flavor.
Rolling up these backgrounds was time-consuming, but I enjoyed it more than the actual game. Heck, it was practically a game in itself. It's really neat to see how seemingly unconnected facts about your childhood can be connected to later details, creating a complete picture that actually flows. On the other hand, it said my character joined the army at the age of two, so it doesn't always make perfect sense. But much like reading Tarot cards, a lot of the elements are open to interpretation in order to make them fit together.
Once we all had nice long complicated backgrounds, we started playing Castles & Crusades. Mechanically, the system's biggest claim to fame is the "Primes" system. Instead of having skills, you generally just roll ability score checks. Two or three of your stats are considered "Prime Stats". These stats are equivalent to trained skills. But instead of giving you a bonus to the roll, it lowers the DC of the skill check. For example, let's say you're trying to break down a door, so you roll a Strength check. If Strength is one of your Prime Stats, then the DC is 12. If not, the DC is 18. It's an interesting concept, but I don't really see it as "better". It's just a different way of doing things.
While I had a good time playing (as I usually do), nothing really stood out that made me think it was superior to any other system. Again, like Dungeon Crawl Classics, C&C picks what its authors considers the best elements of earlier RPGs, while trying to keep everything as simple as possible. But like I said in the DCC post, the game is designed to appeal to nostalgia I don't actually possess. I didn't play much of the D&D editions this game is trying to emulate, so it doesn't evoke all the warm fuzzy puppy-hugging feelings that it does for some of the other players.
It would be unfair of me to really judge the game yet, though. I've only played one session, and our characters were level 0. We don't even have classes yet. I can't really say if I like it or not until I see what an actual class is like. I will be happy to play more of it next time it's on the schedule. Of course, if it becomes a long-term campaign, I hope I can switch to a different character. Mine's just not "me". I'll play any character for a one-shot, but I have to like my character if it's going to be worth leaving the house every week.
Story-wise, our characters started out as captives on a slave ship. There was a bad storm, which took care of most of our captors, and the ship ran aground on an island. After exploring a bit of the island, we rescued a crazy old man from some Orcs and Goblins. The man led us to a temple, where we learned that the goddess Tymora planned to destroy the island soon. We knew that the old man's late master had been buried with a boat, so our goal was to get to that boat before Tymora unleashed her fury. A few battles later, we were almost to the catacombs where the boat is entombed, when we ran out of time and ended the session. We might pick it up from there next time our regular campaign is cancelled.
The Bottom Line:
Central Casting is a fun way to randomly give your characters deep and interesting backgrounds. Most of the time I'd still prefer to write a character's background myself, but for the right game it's a lot of fun to make one at random like this. I highly recommend it if your group is looking for some variety.
Castles & Crusades is a simple RPG for those nostalgic for older systems. I really don't have the data yet to tell if I like it, but I do know that it wasn't designed with people like me in mind.