I don’t do reviews any more. Partly because it stopped paying (you can sell on hard copies of things after you review them, you can’t sell on PDFs), partly because I was sick of reading so much that was mediocre and awful and being forced to trudge through it top to bottom, and partly because I’d done everything I’d wanted to do in the field. The second one was a big one: I don’t actually like most games, and I’ve seen a LOT of dross. And I read slow. So when a nice chap dropped my an email and asked for my thoughts on his game, I twitched. Even if it was good, I was unlikely to care, and I hate trying to say that nicely.
But then, miracle of miracles, it was good. And interesting. But I’m still too tired and too busy to write a proper review. So here’s a non-review of Night of the Crusades, because it deserves your goddamn attention. And – and this is the REAL kicker – it is FREE. You risk nothing. For a 120 page PDF, a full campaign-ready RPG. And there’s supplements too.
Night of the Crusades is not unlike Ars Magica – a fantasy game, but one focussed heavily on real history, in this case, the Crusades. The entire game is set in that period, and in the Middle East. The world map is Byzantium to Cairo. There are fantasy elements, but they are few and far between – far fewer than Ars Magica. It’s also a darker, more brutal world than Ars Magica’s mythic europe – a lot more like Warhammer, but without the black comedy. It’s also a game where passions and loyalties matter a great deal, as in Pendragon, but where Pendragon takes its key from a mythic world, here again, the real world is the source.
And that makes a huge difference. It is one thing to get a bonus to hit orcs or saxons because of your blood hatred against them; quite another to get the same bonus against muslims or Christians.
Don’t think that the game is about religious genocide, however. No, far from it. It’s about what happens in between that. When the religious genocide of the Crusades dumps a massive foreign population in the middle of an indigenous one and everyone has to find their way. One day you might be fighting Moors and be happy to get your Hatred bonus but the next, trying to negotiate a deal with them and it will be an accursed penalty. But you’ll want that guy who really hates group X in your party, because just like in real life, hating someone really makes it easier to try to kill them. And this is a game that makes that HARD. Along with the combat talents and stats, the game also includes the psychological difficulty of trying to hurt a living human being, and the trauma of being successful. Like the madness and critical hits of Warhammer, the world of NotC is one where players end up messed up if they fight too much.
All of these things are accomplished with a system is always simple and a times breath-takingly elegant. There are five stats: Communication, Knowledge, Melee, Ranged and Vigor (I really like this because it gave me confidence in my recent stat list of Communication, Knowledge, Striking and Enduring but I digress) and the values in the range from 0 to 10. The really elegant part is that your stat level is equal to the number of feats you have that are keyed to that stat. So you just pick feats you want and voila, the stats are there – and every time you get a new feat, your stat goes up. It gives you twice the information in one stroke, the very definition of elegance.
The resolution system is compare your stat to the difficulty level, and add the difference to a d10 and try to get a 5 or better. This is the same for all attribute tests, so its usable for everything. But with the addition of all the fun feats (which have beautiful evocative names like Hyena’s Heart and Body Temple) the players have stacks of toys to play with, and there are also some superbly fun mini-systems not just for combat but for negotiations and even telling stories. The latter allows you to gain power-ups if your character tells a good story, and this brings in a kind of Arabian Nights feel to the whole thing…but that sits in contrast to the real history, adding poignancy to both. It would be like if Warhammer had mechanics to let your character play D&D, so you got a real sense of how the two were different. That’s really clever.
There’s also a great wealth system so you can play it Traveller-sandbox-style (or Pendragon month-by-month lifestyle stuff), buying and selling your way through life in a foreign country. Also part of this are the rules and information on societies and organisations – the game is less about getting XP then it is finding a community and rising in its ranks – building a home in a world where everyone is a stranger. It’s another example of what is just a simple and fun rules addition is in fact a subtle layering of theme as well. Sometimes the rules aren’t totally clear or robust but they are always clever like that.
I’m in awe of this game. Really, the best comparison is Pendragon: it matches it in scholarship on the target subject, it matches it on a subtle, evocative blending of history and myth, it matches it in making what you feel matter as much as your abilities, and it matches it in opening up the classic idea of the long-term D&D campaign into a life-long story of time and tide, money gained and spent, battle scars gained, madness tasted, and triumph paid in blood, sweat and years – and it matches all of that with a system that is almost as simple and elegant as the one in Pendragon itself. But don’t think it’s anything like a copy either – Night of the Crusades is very much its own game. It definitely deserves to be as well known as Pendragon though, and if you have any love for the Crusades or the Arabian Nights, you will find fertile ground here.