Over the July 4th weekend, I had a chance to play a couple of games, both of which have been around for a while, so I won’t pretend to write reviews. I was meeting family for the weekend, and both my older brother and my son had not really played D&D [although I've played a couple of simple tabletop RPGs with my son]. My 18-year-old nephew has played and GM’ed many D&D 4e games, and he joined us.
D&D Board Game
First, we played Castle Ravenloft, the board game. I had heard good things about the game, and my nephew had played the sequel, Wrath of Ashardalon. There are several reviews that explain how to play these games in detail, but the gist is that it’s a dungeon crawler with 13 scenarios [with different conditions for victory] and a dynamic game board. The game has an element of the 4e rules in terms of healing surges and the different types of powers. But I thought this would be a good sort of intro game for my brother and a little variation for my kids. I loved this game, more than I expected, because it is one of those very well balanced yet somewhat unpredictable games.
What makes the game a challenge is that for each player’s turn, we had to add a new tile with a new monster, or draw an encounter card, which might reveal a trap, loss of points, or some other bad bit of news. And with some tiles, you get both a monster and an encounter card. Fairly early on, we had some awful bad luck with the dice, as we ditched the d20s that we had and searched for a ‘luckier’ one. At one point, we had 5 monsters, and we were all low on health, having used up all our healing surges. More than once, my son’s wizard died [three times, in fact] and my cleric managed to revive him. We were all down to 1-2 hit points when things took a turn for the better.
Quite unexpectedly, when we revealed the chapel and four new monsters, my son discovered a multiple attack that he had been saving for this last card, and he killed 3 of the 4 monsters, enabling to kill the fourth and grab the icon item to win the game. The game has a great mechanic for building tension, even despair, but includes space for strategy as well as chance to allow players to recover from disaster. It’s the sort of design and balance that reminds me of the Advanced Civilization board game. I also enjoyed the coop nature of the game–if you lose one member, you lose the game. I enjoyed it much more than Pandemic, which is a good game.
Castles and Crusades
A while back, while looking at various RPG systems, I stumbled across Castles and Crusades, a supposedly rules-light game that feels like a hybrid of early D&D and 3.5e. Again, this is another game with lots of reviews, with its share of detractors and fans. I liked the idea of no feats or skills and the reliance on 6 attributes for all checks and saves. I grabbed the Quick Start rules and a character sheet and thought it could be something we could play in a short time.
Character creation is indeed pretty quick, though we took some time to explain things to my brother and my son, as well as to go over the classes and races. Still, I can see where creating a character could take 15 minutes, as Troll Lords claims. I used the very simple adventure in the quick start, thinking even a group of newbies would knock it out in an hour or so.
I think this was indeed a great choice for players new to tabletop RPG. Even though my son has played some simple RPGs, like Mouse Guard, this was more complex and closer to D&D, which he has been really wanting to play. For him, this gave me the opportunity to work some on gaming etiquette. He’s a very imaginative sort [a 'hambone' as my mother calls him], so he can get carried away, especially in this session where we had a great mix of humor and adventure. C&C didn’t overwhelm my son and brother with too many options and rules that D&D can bring. It allowed them to focus on their characters and getting into the game.
My brother played his Skullcrusher fighter well, focused on getting money and, where possible, killing. My son struggled with his character but seeing the others, he got the idea to develop a character, not just stats and abilities. And my nephew played his cleric well, bringing his character’s religion into the game on several occasions.
The session took a good two and a half hours, though it had only two fights. [I skipped the treant encounter partly by accident but also because I had them play level 2 characters, who had few hit points. Plus, I wanted to finish the adventure.] In both cases, the creatures pushed the players, who were somewhat acting in isolation. Unlike Castle Ravenloft, the players in this adventure had no reason to play fully coop. In fact, my nephew’s cleric repeatedly withheld information which angered my brother’s fighter, who hated all spellcasters to begin with. We all had a lot of fun with these 15-minute characters, who begin to flesh out during the game.
We ended with player victory and a lot of fun. Everyone was definitely game for continuing to play. In fact, I’m working now on using Maptools for us to try playing online with Skype. My brother admitted that he had doubts about how well the online play would capture the great part of our adventure, which was the interaction among the players. But, as he said, it’s better than not playing.
Castles and Crusades has some issues, even though I plan to continue using it. For example, I thought the money was far too plentiful. The characters had much higher AC as a result. To make it worse, even though I cut back on the gold that the prefab adventure included, they still walked away with about 4000 gold among the three of them. I think 1/20 of that would have been much better. I also did not care for the character sheets, which really didn’t allow space for abilities and which seemed very repetitive and poorly laid out, but that’s something I can rectify myself easily enough. I also think that once I have the actual core books rather than just the quick start, I’ll have a better feel for the game. As it was, I went to the 3.5e spells for details, which didn’t quite fit.
I’m hoping that our online sessions with Maptools goes well so that we can keep playing and maybe move to a better virtual tabletop, specifically Fantasy Grounds.