Crypts & Things Review from Digitalorc.blogspot.com
The Good: Coherent rules and complete material for a Howard-inspired world.
The Bad: Poor grammar and occasionally poor artwork.
The Bottom Line: If you like old school Dungeons & Dragons and Conan, buy it.
Crypts & Things is a stand-alone roleplaying game with a Robert Howard-like flair. The system is a highly modified Swords and Wizardry variant based on the Open Gaming License. I suppose some would call this a retro clone variant and others would call it a Heartbreaker. Crypts & Things is written by Newt Newport and published through D101 games. I bought the PDF from RPGNow for $10.99 and printed out a hard copy for annotations for the purpose of this review. However, a softcover via Lulu is $23.50 and the hardcover will run you $40. Crypts & Things is copyright 2011. It is 151 pages in length and features interior illustrations by Steve Austin, Eric Lofgen, Scott Neil, John Ossoway, and Scott Purdy. This review focuses on the following elements: layout, grammar, completeness, artwork, character creation, combat mechanics, non-combat mechanics, monsters, and spells.
Crypts & Things is an excellent game with everything you need to start roleplaying a game of Conan after a single reading. For those of you already familiar with Swords & Wizardry or early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, you will certainly recognize terms and rules, but will also want to read Crypts & Things in its entirety. Readers of Dragon magazine and OSR blogs (such as Digital Orc) will find many familiar rule changes and ideas. The value of Crypts & Things is not that the ideas and rules are particularly original or the writing elegant and precise (because it is not), but in how the entire package is effectively aligned towards a specific genre. If you like old school Dungeons and Dragons and Conan, you will like this game.
The layout is typical of a retroclone such as Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord. The entire text is bifurcated into a players section called “Scrolls of Wonderous [sic] Revelation” (yes, I’ll address the grammar in another paragraph) and the Game Master’s (called the Crypt Keeper) half called “The Book of Doom.” The text begins with a brief introduction to roleplaying, then quickly marches a reader through the twenty-some pages of character creation. Next are twenty pages of spells and fifty-some pages for monsters. The Crypt Keeper’s section includes general advice, rule clarification, tables, and a sample adventure.
There are a few walls of text, but most pages are pleasantly broken up with artwork and clear tables. Frequent quotes in large fonts add character, develop mood, and also break the pages nicely. Examples are italicized and a variety of shape outlines (rectangular, ovid, etc) help differentiate content. Pagination is consistent, and the table of contents and index make quick location of content in print versions relatively simple.
The Grammar in Crypts & Things is atrocious. At times it is confusing and others nonsensical. For a product in which nearly all aspects show a degree of polish, the grammar sticks out like a turd in a punchbowl. British spellings and rampant misspellings aside, the syntax itself is often so poor as to confuse rather than clarify. Hyphen are missing, spaces are added, and profuse commas abound where no two clauses exist.
For example, “This is the Countess, would be bride of the Nizur-Thun slain in her sleep before her wedding night day the attack and returned from the grave as a Ghoul.” (p.129) The stat blocks (see combat mechanics paragraph) are also strangely inconsistent. Movement, Specials, and Saving Throw includes a colon, but not Armor Class, Hit Dice, or Experience Points; it splits based on abbreviations. In some cases entire lines are either missing or indentation is misused (e.g., Appendix B, p.134).
The writing oscillates from the typically informal to the formal with frequent and unnecessary passivity. Terms are needlessly repeated; “... which are gained as the character gains…” (p.9). Even the text formatting fluctuates. The fighter stronghold paragraph, for example, has inconsistent line spacing (p.12).
Crypts & Things is wonderfully complete. It includes everything a Crypt Keeper needs to run years of campaigns. Set in a specific world called Zarth, the text contains plenty of unique locations, magical equipment, monsters, NPCs, spell, and campaign ideas to keep gameplay exciting.
Conan has a long and intertwined history with comics. Many famous artists such as Frazetta frequently used Conan as source material. Therefore, anyone going into an RPG emulating Robert Howard’s world of the Hyborian Age likely expects spectacular art. Crypts & Things at times offers effective illustrations, but fails to deliver high quality art that channels Howard and supports reading and gameplay. Some of the pieces are appropriately dark and macabre with thick lines and lots of black space. These pieces certainly align with the themes of the text and develop a sombre mood. However, other art is composed of light sketches and falls flat. Some of the illustrations are also reused through the text.
Character creation in Crypts & Things is fantastic because players have the opportunity to delve deeper into a smaller selection of classes. The system has eliminated all demi-humans and clerics and added one class. This provides a total choice of four classes: hardy barbarians, strong fighters, smart magicians, and dextrous thieves. Crypts & Things also removes alignment (and thus alignment languages) and collapses the traditional numerous saving throw values into one. All characters can backstab and the traditional thief’s skills of climbing, moving silently, etc are distributed amongst the player classes.
Character creation also includes a “Generate Life Events” table which not only fleshes out a character’s backstory, but also involves mechanical applications (p.19). Rolling a five, for example, results in “”I was a slave at a royal court.” +2 CHA.” Not only do beginning characters roll on this table, but developing characters continue to roll on this table every three levels or at the Crypt Keeper’s discretion.
Despite these simplifications, Crypts & Things players have more choices with their characters rather than less. The character creation pool is less wide, but far deeper. There are fighting styles, spell types (more on that later), and an expanded modifier table. Characters have class skills to tweak and sanity to protect. Even though the first step choices are narrowed compared to comparable retroclones, the overall character creation process is enriched. Such an alignment-free human-centric world not only aligns with those of Conan and Red Sonja, but with the way many people already play Dungeons & Dragons.
Combat is very similar to Swords & Wizardry: determine surprise, declare spells, determine initiative, take turns acting, repeat. There are, however, a smattering of differences. The rules permit “holding” an action until the end of a round, for example (p.27). Holding two weapons also provides a +1 to hit, but the off-hand weapon must be a dagger and the damage is the average of the two weapons. Also, character classes, themselves, include several modifiers to hit and damage that players must take into account.
In many places categories of combat rules are entirely sidestepped by an ambiguous deference to the Crypt Keeper. Critical hits and fumbles, for examples, begins “There is no official system for handling critical hits…” (p.30). The rules for retreating are confined to two sentences: “It is up to the Crypt Keeper to decide if there will be any special rules for retreating away from a melee combat. Most Crypt Keepers allow the enemy a free attack if the character or monsters) moves away by more than its “combat” movement of base movement rate in feet.” (p.30)
Monster stat blocks are concise. Skeletons, for example, are included in the provided four page adventure, “The Halls of Nizar-Thun.”
"Skeleton: AC 7  HD 1 HP 4 Attacks: Short Sword (1d6) Saving Throw: 17 Special: None Move: 12 XP 15" (p.129)
The Crypt Keeper is frequently reminded that combat and, indeed, all rules are malleable or even optional. The author employs such an approach both in keeping with the old school spirit of house-ruling and to prevent the setting from changing the rules significantly. “Remember none of this is written in stone.” (p.131) “I don’t want to get in your way by making the rules heavily setting-dependant [sic].” (p.132) The Crypt Keeper is also admonished to “Not overdo the rules” (p.135).
In Crypts & Things Hit Points “represent only ‘superficial” damage.” (p.32) This includes exhaustion, bruises, minor damage, etc. They are easily and quickly recovered. However, once a character’s Hit Points are reduced to zero, they take damage directly from their constitution. This state requires checks to remain conscious and is far more difficult from which to recover.
Non Combat Mechanics
Characters have a collection of non combat skills determined by class and life events. These skills include abilities such as climbing, opening locks, perception, tracking, sense danger, and others. Any character can attempt any skill; they simply do not receive a class or event-induced bonus to their roll.
Speaking of rolls, all characters have a solitary numerical saving throw. It is the basis for a universal task resolution system. Characters attempting any non combat task simply rolls a 1d20, applies modifiers, and compares the result to their saving throw. If the total results is equal to or greater than the saving throw, the task is completed successfully. Not only is this system wonderfully simple, it encourages players to increasingly interact with their world. It also provides a generalized and consistent framework for the Crypt Keeper.
The sanity rules also employ the simple task resolution system. A character’s Wisdom attribute determines their sanity. Any time a character encounters black magic or witnesses “unspeakable supernatural horrors”, they must roll against their saving throw or lose 1d6 Wisdom (p.26). Once, or if, a character reaches zero, they are irreparably insane and unplayable. The remaining rule framework is Swords & Wizardry. Gaining experiences, passage of time, encumberence and hiring henchmen basically follow the same mechanics.
Many of the monsters of Zarth are ported directly from Swords & Wizardry. The fire beetles and cockitrice, for example, are near-identical transfers. Many, however, are both unique and effectively channel the feel of Conan. Serpent Men, for example, are a dangerous species of lizard-men. Nemon are an interesting amphibious humanoid variant. Overall, there are over one hundred monsters.
Spells are somewhat different in Crypts & Things compared to Swords & Wizardry. While some of the terms and effects are similar, the way in which they are organized and cast is significantly different. Spells are organized into three basic categories; white, grey, and black. White magic heals and protects, gray is illusionistic, and black is harmful. Grey magic can physically injure (or even kill) the caster and dark magic can drive them insane (at which point their character is unplayable and handed over to the Crypt Keeper). Casting is Vancian and organized into both tables and pages of clarifying text. There are a total of 142 spells; forty-four while, forty-four grey, and fifty-four black.
Crypts & Things is awesome; I love it. It still makes me want to run players in the dark world of Zarth, even though it needs another edit job and better artwork. While the rules are not particularly original or groundbreaking, they align very well with the world of Conan. At first glance, Crypts & Things may appear to over simplify Swords & Wizardry. However, it actually offers greater complexity in a human-centric world where magic is dangerous, enchantments are rare, and every encounter could be your last moment of sanity. Won’t join me in a visit?