In five words or less: I LOVE IT!
C&T captures the flavor it intends to – the feel of weird fantasy sword and sandal pulp stories. A S&W variant, it’s more Howard, Leiber, Moorcock and Lovecraft than Tolkien, but you knew that already.
So the flavor of the game is fun and well executed, and it affects the rules in a few significant ways. There are four classes, the Barbarian, Fighter, Magician, and thief. Every PC! Yes, since “everyone is a rogue” in these stories, all the PCs can backstab if they get the drop on a target. I like this, and it doesn’t take away from the thief class.
This thief is more Gray Mouser than Bilbo Baggins, maybe a slightly better fighter than the original thief, but other than that is basically the thief we know and love.
The fighter has some neat options to customize their abilities and make sure they’re not all cookie cutter fighters. This design strikes a nice balance between feats and kits or fighter subclasses. They can be monk-like brawlers or pursue weapon mastery, for example, but can’t do it all. I find this to be an elegant way to add options without too many rules and power bloat.
The barbarian is well designed to honor the tropes of Barbarian while being distinct from the fighter class. Again, since everyone can backstab this feels very Conan to me (admittedly, I haven’t read all of Howard’s Conan stories and only a few Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, but C&T gives me this impression).
The Magician can learn magic that in regular S&W (or any OSR or D&D game) would be Wizard and Cleric magic; now it’s just Magic: organized into White, Grey, and Black magic. Naturally white magic is good and kind and helpful, Black is evil and harmful, and Grey is the other spells that transform, hypnotize, charm, or create. Here the rules changes get interesting.
The most significant rule change IMO is that hit points are not representing one’s physical health and well being; hit points represent their endurance, willpower and stamina; their Grit if you will. So PCs are not killed at 0 hp, they start taking Constitution damage. Naturally your character is killed at 0 CON.
I really like this change! Because of it,healing is different; healing spells only heal CON damage, not HP. Also, your HP refresh every night of full rest (since they’re more about mental and physical stamina than physical healing) and you can even ‘heal’ some HP with a good stiff drink. This too, totally works for me: The heroes gird their loins, take a swing of bravery, and leap once more into the fray. Perfect. I’d argue a good rousing speech would heal some HP following this paradigm. There are magical healing potions as well, but they’re far less common than normal S&W.
This really gets interesting with magic, as White magic can be cast as often as you can memorize it (the familiar Vancian system) with no negative effects (except one 6th level White spell that pisses off the evil entities). Casting Gray Magic costs your Magician Hit Points. It’s the classic trope of suffering physical strain to use magic forces that Man Was Not Meant To Tamper With. It SO WORKS! Black magic is even better: You have to kill a sentient being to or risk Sanity Loss to cast Black magic spells. LOVE IT. And Wisdom equals Sanity Points in C&T, similar to Call of Chuthulu, but simpler.
There are most of the spells you’d expect, a few that are new (to my knowledge) and most are tweaked to better fit the setting. The "skill system" if there is one is to use the character's Saving Throw (modified by attribute bonus or penalty) to resolve any roll not covered by class abilities or defined some other way. I first encountered this method in X-plorers, and find it to be elegant - simple yet effective, and it keeps the game fast-paced.
The setting included in the book, the world of Zarth, reinforces the entire milieu perfectly. I’ll leave it at that, because it’s a good read, but I'm excited about the Shroud, which surrounds and permeates the world of Zarth and is a source of power for Magicians daring to use it. The Shroud, sort of like the Mists of Ravenloft, is the thin veil that encases and separates the world from the Outer Chaos (or whatever it’s called). Some Black Magic spells function because the caster interacts directly with the Shroud. For example, slipping into it other-worldly ethereal non-space to disappear from one location and reappear in another (teleport). Another example is to use the Shroud to become invisible, just like when Frodo puts on the One Ring and enters the Nazgul phantom zone (so there’s your Tolkien, if you must have it, LOL). Naturally, travelling in the Shroud is a sanity-bending experience for the uninitiated and it attracts all sorts of attention from the Others (C&T’s name for Outsiders/Demons/Elder Chaos beings, etc). Good stuff!
The magic items and creatures all follow this sort of design and enhance the flavor of the setting and game swimmingly, and I think the whole of C&T totally rocks, if that wasn’t clear already. The book itself is well illustrated and laid out well. I bought the pdf to save money, but even printed on three hole punched paper and put in a binder it looks great. I also like the art; it is it effective, evocative and kinetic. Just take a gander at that great cover!
[5 of 5 Stars!]