What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:

What I'm Backing on Kickstarter:
Castles & Crusades Players Handbook - 7th Print Edition

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Of Gods & Monsters

Of Gods & Monsters is one of the key releases that was part of the 'Fourth Crusade' advertising campaign. The Fourth Crusade in this instance is a reference to the 4th printing of the Player's Handbook. There was a great deal of anticipation for this book considering the name attached to it. James Ward is no stranger to this sort of material and he was involved with the original D&D supplement, “Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes”. Fans of Castles & Crusades were equally curious at what Ward might do and how this would suit the game.

The book, presently only available in softcover format, spans 162 pages in total. Amongst its pages, 15 pantheons are examined and a host of new spells, magic items, and monsters are provided. The art is tastefully done but will differ in style from section to section. This is only natural given the amount of artists who have contributed to the project. In terms of the material itself, there is plenty to look through and digest. The book starts with a few words written by Steve Chenault and his thoughts on the project followed by the Preface written by the author.

The Introduction offers the first glimpse into the rest of the work and you are already presented with some interesting game material which expands on some from the Player's Handbook – notably the God-like Attributes. The Introduction also talks about avatars being used by the various deities and hints at the general motivations for them. This section closes off by a few words regarding the various granted abilities given to the followers of the respective gods. Now, while I like the approach used and the concept of avatars, some of the rationale given to why certain things are the way they are aren't particularly well developed. When briefly looking at an avatar's attributes or hit points, it is stated that they could be anything that the deity wished but they were limited in the fashion illustrated out of a sense of fairness. For someone who loves mythology, the notion of 'fairness' may not make a whole lot of sense when considering myths and legends. None of this takes anything away from the work and this is just a detail colored by opinion rather than technical merit. However, the question of editing does come to mind in a couple of instances – once of which is in the Introduction. In this instance, an explanation on the listed armor class of an avatar is given twice in the section.

The rest of the book is devoted to the various pantheons. Every pantheon opens up with an introductory paragraph on the given culture followed by various entries for that grouping. Each entry for a given deity gives the name of the god, any titles and symbols associated when them, the province (area of influence), and any ceremonies, taboos, and granted abilities for their followers. These abilities, as well as the ceremonies and taboos, can be seen as the 'spice' of the work. While there doesn't seem to be a strong inclination to provide hard and fast rules for the granting or denying of some these abilities, there isn't a need for those either. As with all things for Castles & Crusades, the decision on how to exactly implement this material will be in the hands of the person running the game. These concern the gods after all … and they can be a fickle bunch. All of these things can present fun opportunities for great role playing and storytelling. This material is followed by a brief blurb about the deity in question and lists any relevant artifacts and details the stat block on the avatar of the god. All in all, each section with its art and text gives a very basic impression of the culture behind it.

Looking at the various pantheons, I found that there remains an issue of consistency which some readers may observe when going through them. In the case of the Celtic Pantheon, this part actually has the header that reads Introduction when this is missing from other Pantheons. The American Indian pantheon actually has a few headers in the introductory portion which goes as far as defining portions which are common in each deity entry such as the Deity Province and Taboo. This sort of general explanation may have been better placed in the General Introduction of the book or, more likely, was supposed to have been removed and this section or chapter
served as a template for the other pantheons of the work.

Beyond this, the book also goes further to become more than just an accessory dealing with the gods. Many spells and monsters are provided to help bring to life the various sections that the book outlines. Nevertheless, when it comes to considering this book, it's hard not to compare it with similar works which the author himself has worked on with TSR. It is understandable that certain expectations that people held for this book were rather high. While there are significant differences that makes this an improvement on similar gaming books, this work doesn't quite go far enough to break out of this mold.

On the one hand, the book manages to surpass expectations given that it is not simply a book on gods and the stats for their earthly hosts. It contains many new creatures, spells, and items as well as providing ways to integrate divine magic, ritual, and religion into ones campaign from entry to entry. It is a book that will provide tons of ideas and see more use at the gaming table than other books of this type. It also provides sufficient mythologies to explore beyond those drawn from the various cultures of the earth and gives adequate support for a fantasy realm filled with beings other than human. Fans of TLG's own setting will be happy to know that a section is also devoted to the cosmology of Aihrde and some of those gods.

On the other hand, while expected, people may still be shocked to see that certain iconic deities were simply not included for one reason or the other. While it is excellent to see that Greek and Roman pantheons have been treated separately, only including 10 of the classical 12 Olympians for the Greek pantheon (as an example) was a very odd choice. Naturally, one cannot do a 'full' treatment given the scope of this book but the lack of certain deities may disappoint some – especially considering other books of this type. Anyone also hoping that this book may serve as some sort of mythological primer will also be disappointed as this is clearly not the intention of this work.

Final Thoughts

'Of Gods & Monsters' is a good book. It tries to be more than just a book of gods and goddesses for the game and succeeds in doing so at least partially. The inclusion of abilities as well as the ceremonies and taboos for the various deities and their followers is a welcome addition. These could give one's game a new level of detail and offer new venues for the players to explore. The book offers more monsters, more spells, and more magical items and artifacts compared to other books of its type. Finally, for someone who isn't interested in earth-inspired mythologies, the book also presents 6 fantasy mythologies to explore – a separate one for Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, and Humanoids as well as a section devoted to the cosmology of Aihrde.

For some, this book will simply be measured up against others and while it does try to be more than a gaming book focused on mythological beings, it remains the main focus of the work. It is intended to facilitate the involvement of the gods in the affairs of the people in your fantasy campaign. If you are not interested in a deeper sense of involved mythos in your campaign, then this book will simply not see as much use at the gaming table.

[Originally written for Domesday - vol.5]