The Exploding World of Castles and Crusades

The Exploding World of Castles and Crusades

Codex CeltarumI was disappointed I wasn’t able to go to GenCon this week. Although I’ve been enjoying Howard Andrew Jones’s sporadic updates on Facebook, and looking forward to a detailed report when he gets back.

In the meantime, I’ve been consoling myself with memories of my last game convention, Gary Con V in March. I wrote up a detailed report on Gary Con IV last year, but just didn’t have time to do it justice with a full length write-up this year. But I sure enjoyed the few hours I was able to spend there. The highlight for me, as usual, was the Dealer’s Room, which gets bigger and more varied every year.

I was pleased to be able to say hello to Kelsey “Rose” Jones at the Games By Gamers booth, makers of the world’s best dice bags, and tell her how much I enjoyed her work. And buy a new bag for my daughter, who complained that the ones I brought home last year were “covered in skulls and icky stuff, and not pretty. At all.” She was right, and this time I got her a nice bag with a fall color print, which made her extremely happy.

I was also very pleased to finally meet Jeffrey Talanian and Ian Baggley — the writer and artist behind the terrific Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which I reviewed last December — and buy a copy of the hot-of-the-press first issue of Gygax Magazine. I also met the friendly folks at Faster Monkey Games, and bought a copy of Castle Ravenloft from the Noble Knight Games booth, which was stocked with a wonderful assortment of new and collectible games in great condition — and at great prices.

But my most impressive stop was at Stephen Chenault’s Troll Lord booth, where I was astounded at the wide range of new Castles & Crusades titles. I had a nice talk with Stephen and left feeling very jazzed about the exciting things in store for Old School Renaissance fans.

[Click on any of the images for bigger versions.]

Stephen Chenault and the Troll Lord booht at Gary Con V
Stephen Chenault and the Troll Lord booth at Gary Con V

Castles & Crusades is a complete role-playing game written by Stephen and published by Troll Lord. It first appeared, in the now-famous White Box Set, at Gencon in 2004. It was created using OGL 1.0 and, like virtually all games using that license, was based on Dungeons & Dragons.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the early C&C releases was that Stephen had recruited none other than Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, to produce content for him.

Now, Gygax had written a number of impressive products after leaving TSR, including several adventures for Dangerous Journeys and Lejendary Adventure. From 2002 to 2006, he wrote the Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds volumes for Troll Lord.

But what gamers really wanted was additional D&D content — especially the famed Castle Greyhawk, perhaps the most famous unpublished adventure ever written.

Castle Greyhawk was the second oldest D&D campaign setting (the oldest being Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, published by TSR in 1975). It was created by Gygax and his co-DM Robert J. Kuntz and, according to legend, encompassed a complete castle and the dungeons below, totaling some 50 levels of complex passages and thousands of rooms and traps.

Castle ZagygSince Wizards of the Coast, which acquired TSR in 1997, still had the rights to Greyhawk, and since converting a project of that scope to some other system wasn’t practical (or, frankly, what the market wanted), it seemed unlikely that the legendary Castle Greyhawk would ever be published.

Castles & Crusades changed all that. It allowed writers — including Gygax — to publish adventure supplements designed for D&D with very little modification.

In 2003, Gygax and Rob Kuntz announced they were working with Troll Lord to publish both Castle Greyhawk and the City of Greyhawk in six huge volumes. Castle Greyhawk became “Castle Zagyg” (a reverse homophone of Gygax), and the City of Greyhawk became “Yggsburgh”  (E.G.G.’s-burgh) — see the map here.

However, Gygax completed only two of the planed volumes before his death in 2008.

Castle Zagyg: Yggsburgh, a 256-page hardcover describing the city and over 30 encounters outside its walls, was released in 2005 (see the back cover here, and the fold-out map here), and in 2008 the massive boxed set Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works — containing 200 pages of text packed in five booklets, fold-out color maps, and detailed player handouts — by Gygax and Hyperborea author Jeffrey Talanian, finally followed. (See a close-up of the contents here and here, and the box back here.)

I snapped up both as they appeared (and a good thing, too… they are now very, very hard to come by, with used copies of The Upper Works selling for $300 and up — when you can find them).

I also purchased the other major boxed set Gygax did with Troll Lord: the massive Hall of Many Panes (2005), a huge adventure originally written for Lejendary Adventures which was re-statted for d20 systems and easily usable with Castles & Crusades.

upper-worksCastle Zagyg was just starting to generate real excitement and attention when Gygax passed away. When he did, Gygax’s heirs announced plans of their own to produce new Greyhawk-inspired material, and Troll Lord lost the license.

Those new plans never materialized, which means the small print run of Troll Lord’s Castle Zagyg and The Upper Works are all that exists (which explains why they are so highly prized today).

With the loss of the license, Castles & Crusades seemed to go dormant. Jeffrey Talanian went on to design his own well-received RPG with Hyperborea and some assumed (as I did) that, without Gygax at the helm, Castles & Crusades had come to the end of its life.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Which is why I was so surprised and delighted when I found Troll Lord mastermind Stephen Chenault manning a booth at Gary Con V that was positively packed with exciting new products for Castles & Crusades — including a handsome new hardcover edition of the rules, alongside monster books, supplements, adventures, settings, and even custom dice sets and bags.

I’ve spent the last few months reviewing the C&C products I brought home from Gary Con, and came away very impressed. It’s a terrific collection of cleverly designed and splendidly written products useful to anyone running a D&D or OE campaign (as I currently am).

Take for example my current favorite, The Town of Kalas, a sandbox adventure setting written by Paul Kidd (who I assume is the same Paul Kidd who authored the best of the Greyhawk Classic novels, White Plume Mountain, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, and Queen of the Demonweb Pits.)

Kidd details aspects of urban life most other writers have never considered, and does so in a highly engaging and entertaining style.


Here he is on Militia Duty, in the section on buying a house:

Hey! Becoming a land-owning citizen? Then you now owe militia duty!

Your local ‘quarter’ of the city organizes a militia regiment. [Your] choices are to either pay 5 gp a month in ‘scutage’ fees to hire a substitute, or do militia service yourself.

What’s involved in doing it yourself? For a big strong PC like you? Ha — it’s nothing! Once a week you will turn up to the local hall, meet the gang, do some weapons drill, swap rumours and hear the local gossip — then all thunder down to the pub for a drink!


And OK — so technically you’re in the militia, and [could] be called out for duty. But hell — what are the odds that you’d find yourself drafted to escort some crazy expedition into the wilds, or find yourselves conscripted on a spying mission to penetrate a nest of slavers?

Trust me! It could never happen!

Perhaps your players want to rent a house instead, and skip out on all that annoying civic responsibility?

Castles & Crusades Rune LoreOn the same page, Kidd provides a marvelous table for some of the “extras” renters could find:

  1. Secret door contains a skeleton! (and possible clues to old murder or a treasure)
  2. Giant ants can enter the pantry via a secret door
  3. Secret door leads down to sewers
  4. Kid next door is learning to play alpen horn
  5. Axe beak races go right past the front door
  6. Stirges in the attic
  7. Druid next door. His animals keep getting into your garden (plus he bangs drums all night!)
  8. One bedroom has excellent view into next door courtesan’s bedroom and bathroom
  9. Bunch of student wizards live next door
  10. Bunch of elf babes live next door
  11. Next door neighbour keeps all windows shuttered and blocked with black cloth. Never comes out in daylight!
  12. Unexpected fittings! Big bath house, or luxurious extra garrett, meditation garden with fountain, library with some books, mammoth master bedroom with luxurious bed and mirror on ceiling, strange cellar room with rack, chains and cages…

Kidd is my kind of adventure designer — his blend of danger and whimsy in his descriptions is almost perfect. Axe beak races past the front door? Giant ants raiding the pantry? A drum-playing druid? Any of these things would add atmosphere to almost any urban setting, without derailing major plot threads.

These are exactly the kinds of things that keep my young players gabbing excitedly in the hallway half an hour after the game is over.

The Black Libram of NartarusThe table of “extra fittings” to be found in houses for sale is just as amusing:

  1. Observatory dome or summoning room
  2. Most excellent roof garden
  3. Shrine
  4. Unsettling murals
  5. Big aviary cage
  6. Dream lodge
  7. Funky little tower
  8. Secret escape tunnel to the far side of the street
  9. Rather exotic garden (planted with weird plants)
  10. Magical portal to a weird location in the airing cupboard
  11. A relatively harmless ghost — can scare the living crapula out of the new residents when they first encounter it!

There are literally dozens of adventure hooks on every page. All the content above, in fact, is taken from a single page (page 28) of The Town of Kalas.

The Town of Kalas comes with a dozen nicely detailed maps in the back of the book and a handy collection of rumors the players will collect during their urban excursions.

Kalas is probably the product I’ll get the most immediate use out of, but I was also very impressed with The Giant’s Wrath by Brian N. Young, a short adventure that reminded me of Gygax’s famed Against the Giants.

The Giants WrathHere’s the evocative back cover text:

A power has risen in the Otherworld, it drives the storms upon the shores with such force that they batter the earth and grind the rocks. Those ill fortuned enough to dwell near the sea hide in terror at the fury of the storm unleashed. But it is not the storm they fear, it is the giants that ride the foamy surf. Formians! Giants of the old world they come, riding long ships across the mad-capped seas to surge up against the settlements of men; raiding with wild abandon, plundering, burning, hauling off treasures and slaves with few to impede their crimes.

But there is method here, something, or someone drives the Formians, pushing them to reckless heights. Who and why are tangled in the intrigues of local lords, wizards, and their sons. It is yours to unravel the Gordian knot that is The Giants Wrath.

This adventure is about the terrible raiding that the Sea Giants are doing to the coastal villages in the Mortal world and the sinister plans of their leader, a human wizard called the Stormgazer. In the progress of these adventures, the characters must make their way across the seas to the Otherworld to confront the wizard and his Giants and put an end to the terror.

This story deals with many strands of Celtic mythology, both Irish and Welsh, and places them in the context of a fantasy setting that is easily integrated into Castle & Crusades’ Aihrde. This series of adventures places the characters into a tough and brutal story where there is little subtlety once the blood begins to flow.

The Giant’s Wrath was designed for 3-4 characters at 3rd – 8th level or higher.

During our conversation, Stephen shared some tidbits about two of the more highly anticipated releases, Codex Celtarum and Rune Lore:

Codex Celtarum is part of a series of mythological books we’ve been trying to get out for a long time. And Rune Lords introduces a new class, Rune Marks, and a new magic system.

On game publishing and the rapidly changing industry, Stephen had this to say:

The industry is doing a mammoth shift — in a good way — into a digital realm. And I don’t mean PDF. Even as old channels are being closed we have a whole new plethora of ways to reach out to our readership — including blogs, Facebook, Kindle. We’ve been doing it for a while, but now fans and gamers are really partaking.

Castles & Crusades Players Handbook-smallI’m still looking through most of the other C&C products I brought home — including Heart of Glass, The Black Libram, Monsters & Treasure of Aihrde, Codex Celtarum, and A Lion in the Ropes.

All have marvelous cover art and splendid design. But if they turn out to be even half as entertaining or useful as Kalas or The Giant’s Wrath, they’ll be worth much more than I paid for them.

In fact, the only complaint I have about the books is that they contain a high number of typos — nothing serious, but every other aspect of the design and editing is so top-notch that I find it distracting.

Otherwise, Troll Lord’s recent Castles and Crusades releases get my highest recommendation. If you’re in the market for some fun, easy-to-use adventures and game supplements, they fit the bill nicely.

The Castles and Crusades Player’s Handbook was published on August 21, 2012. It is 144 pages in full color, priced at $29.99 in hardcover.

The Town of Kalas was published in 2012; it is 80 pages in paperback, priced at $17.99.

The Giant’s Wrath was published in 2012; it is 24 pages in paperback, priced at $6.99.

Troll Lords products are available in digital format at RPG Now, DriveThru RPG, and other fine outlets.

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Scott Taylor

This is too funny, as I reviewed the C&C Players Handbook last week and have already written the Castle Zagyg review for this week on AotG. Great minds I guess 🙂

Jeff Stehman

A few years back nostalgia had me looking for the feel of my days-gone-by gaming without having to actually deal with those ugly rules. C&C walks that line. And while the CKG provides a lot of optional crunch to the game, the Players Handbook allows for fluid, fast-moving game play (which is apparently Steve’s style).

I have only two complaints about C&C. First, while editing varies project by project, it is usually weak, especially in the core rules I have (4th edition of the PH, if I recall correctly).

Second, they love their cheesecake. I use the landscape CK screens, but I pasted construction paper over the artwork on the back. Not something my wife would have been happy looking at for hours at a time. The core books are loaded with scantily clad women heading off in search of adventure.

John, if your young gamers ever reach a point where they’d like an adventure with more thrills and less whimsy, I highly recommend Shadows of the Halfling Hall. Fantastic module.

And here I was planning to do a post on C&C products. I, too, just picked up Town of Kalas, as well as the Celtic book and the Classic Monsters book. I really like the C&C system in theory and am going to be trying it out in a campaign soon.


Sorry, I’m late to the party but you’re absolutely right. C&C really nails that classic feel without the burden of many of the ungainly mechanics present in those editions. It has become my favorite edition of D&D to date. I’m also really enjoying the Town of Kalas though haven’t had a chance to use it in the campaign I’m running. (currently using D&D Next playtest rules). But as soon as I can convince my group to go C&C full time, you can bet I will. Someone mentioned Shadows of The Halfling Hall and I’ll concur that it’s a fantastic module. I ran it for my group a few years ago in one of short C&C campaigns. I review it on my blog here if you’re interested.

[…] Edition Advanced rules”) and of course it is fully compatible with OSR systems like Castles and Crusades, Labyrinth Lord, and the OSRIC rules […]

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