Blade and Crown is a new contribution to the FRPG field by Rachel Kronick whose explict objective is "[f]antasy roleplaying that balances 80s realism and indie narrativism", certainly an orientation that I have some preferences towards. The book comes in at around 190 pages, a strong four-page table of contents and four-page index, both a very comprehensive size. The text is two-column, ragged-right with a serif font with an attractive page margin, although with almost invisible page numbers. There are some illustrations by the author (which are not that great), and a good selection of public domain art, albeit often placed without contextual consideration. Chapter conclusions invariably end with a fair amount of white-space as well. The writing style, of average efficiency, jumps between being formal and chatty in the same context, which can a little off-putting.
Beginning with the introduction, the author states their objectives. Many of these are quite laudable; mechanics that generate evocative detail., includes gritty realism, especially in combat and historicism., tends towards completedness (i.e., substance)., gives the players and GM some narrative control., allows for characters to have a wide range of skill choices (pretty much standard fare these days). At the same time there are some objectives which also seemed contradictory; the objective of realism is tempered with the claim that the game must also encourage adventurous behaviour "the system can't be so gritty and dangerous that no one would want to do anything interesting", and, "approximates an early medieval level of technology and social structure, but isn't sexist or racist", which pretty much is a defining quality of early medieval social structures.
Starting with a four-page illustration of play and with a subsequent two-pages of elaboration, the mechanics of the game can be stated as follows; roll d10 from a dice pool consisting of a loosely coupled characteristic and skill, plus or minus any traits that are appriopriate. The highest die is the result, with a bonus of +1 for multiples of the highest die roll. The use of traits are limited in a session, with tokens being passed back and forth to the GM according to whether the player invokes them positively or negatively. A tactical player, with a good sense of narration, will invoke negative traits in non-threatening situations and accumulate a pile for positive invokements in times of crisis. In addition to this, a d12 is used as a "variation die" which gives general details of the test in terms of style, time, quantity, and quality, but with more elaborate uses in spell-casting and combat (e.g., hit locations). A well-narrated uses of the variation die gives an additional +1 to the result. Overall, the system has some merit, but being mostly limited to results along the 1 to 10 range means that it suffers terrible scaling problems.
There are eight steps in character generation; start with character background, assign Traits and ratings, assign characteristics, calculate secondary characteristics, assign skills, select religion, buy equipment and, if a magic-user, select nodes and spells aligned. Quite a lot of space is dedicated to background issues (intent, culture, childhood, social relationships, age, appearance, reasons for adventuring), although these are largely descriptive rather than systematic. A page of a well-written description gives four points to characteristics or skills, plus additional bonuses if the GM has specific ideas based on the backstory.
Traits are the first mechanics determined in character generation. These are mostly personality traits, which can be positive or negative according to the context. As something invoked to modify tests, they do not come with any systematic effects themselves, but rather a title and a short description (e.g., Amorous, Disabled, Fearful, Proud, Serious, Young). From a selection of around forty (plus any others that a player or GM can conceive), your character must select four (and only four), which can include unknown Traits, and which can change over time. Beginning characters start with three Traits at rating 1 and one Trait at rating 2. Characters can receive an additional skill point if they have a trait that links them to another PC.
There are twelve characteristics in Blade & Crown; Strength, Endurance, Agility, Perception, Logic, Will, Memory, Eloquence, Aura, Divine Favour, and Social Class - a rather onerous quantity. For humans, the range is 1 to 4, except Social Class which is rated 0 to 20. Each character has 40 Characteristic Points (CPs) to buy characteristics with at a cost of 1 for 1 point, 2 for 3 points, 3 for 6 points, and 4 for 10 points. It is possible to 0 in some characteristics at a cost of 0 (e.g., Aura, Divine Favour). Social Class is again an exception, purchased at a 1:1 basis. In addition there are six secondary calculated characteristics; Toughness, Carrying Capacity, Size, Composure, Learning Ability, and Wealth, some of which have particularly crunchy calculations (e.g., Learning Ability is (LOG + (WIL * 2) + MEM ) /2).
There's around 120 skills to choose from, plus cascade skills broken up into the categories of Combat, Craft, Lore, Magic, Outdoor, Social, and Underworld. Most skills are described in a few sentences at best, with the recommended minimum of at least one Area Knowledge, Etiquette, Folklore, and Language (if you want to talk to anyone!). Beginning characters start with forty skill points, which can be used to purchase level 1 for 1 points, level 2 for 3 points, level 3 for 6 points, and level 4 for 10 points. The list of Craft skills is a particularly nice inclusion, and one note the nomenclature from Swordbearer in the magic system. There is also a very handy list of professions which can double as a quick NPC chart, at least for skill rankings. At level 3 and level 4 in a skill, you may choose a specialisation which are restricted in two degrees (e.g., a sword skill with "called shot" and "against goblins"). When a specialisation comes into play, and extra die is added to the pool.
Putting aside religion and magic (as the book's order also does), starting equipment is a function of Social Class and profession. The latter does provides an excellent shortcut (as it did for RuneQuest III) for standard equipment, but initially professions were presented as if they were optional. Equipment, of course, does vary significantly according to profession; a sailor begins with almost nothing, whereas a knight carries with them a small fortune in equipment. Nevertheless, the equipment and wealth system, which is also explained later, does give different options. Several pages of example characters later, and we're ready for the next chapter block.
Task Resolution, Experience
Blade and Crown defines task resolution as requiring a skill roll. The core mechanic, already explained, is used throughout. A few pages are provided of sample task tests, with modifiers and prerequisites, some based on unopposed target numbers (the standard value is 8), and others with opposed target numbers. For example, the task "To Cut A Gem", is based on Jewelcraft plus Dexterity, with a modifier of -1 per difficulty, and the prerequisites of requiring artisan's tools, usually over multiple segments, and can only be carried out by those trained in the skill. Also as mentioned previously, the d12 variation die dovetails into task resolution, but in this part of the book it is elaborated to include characteristics, elements, hit locations, positive and negative skill results across the categories. At this point equipment modifiers for skills is also introduced, with examples for the range form -2 to +4. Other skill modifiers such as exhaustion, reputation, and social class. Modifiers, rather unfortunately, are limited to the highest possible but with any four of a value providing the next level higher. The game claims that using cumulative modifiers would be unbalanced; although my limited experience is that this is not the case except as expected.
If your roll is all 1s, or if the total result of a roll after all modifiers is 1 or less, the task result is a mishap, with the specific result indicated by the variation die. Likewise with a failure (less than the target number), stalemates (equal to the target number), successes (greater than the target number), and critical successes (four or more points higher than the target number). It is also possible to finish tasks quicker (with a negative -1 per quarter of time, minimum of one quarter) and, more interestingly, with daring which allows a negative modifier from -1 to -4 to be turned into a doubled positive modifier if successful. In other words, a greater chance for failure can turn into a greater chance for critical success.
For character development, the GM assigns 1 to 3 XP per session depending on "how well" each character did. Amazing acts within a game session can lead to an instant reward of 1 or even 2 XP. Record keeping can provide an extra XP, as can bringing snacks and beverages, making maps, songs, or otherwise adding to the spirit of the game also leads to XP rewards. It is a model which encourages roleplaying and the social contract of play. Increasing characteristics cost 20 (from 0 to 1), 40 (1 to 2), 60 (2 to 3), or 80 XP (3 to 4), whereas increasing skills are at half that level. Traits can be changed by 20 XP per level, in addition to one change per session according to plot development. A teaching task is modified by how many XP worth of a skill that a teacher is trying to impart, and the student must succeed at a learning task. Book learning includes a modifier for the depth and clarity of the text. Characteristics are also subject to development, according to age with an increasingly difficult Toughness test. Social Class developments are considered "obvious" as the result of narrative progression, and cultural variation.
Wealth and Equipment
Wealth is a characteristic in B&C, with each item of equipment rated in terms of its cost. A character may purchase an item two levels or less to their Wealth with no ill-effect. If it is one point less, the character's temporary Wealth goes down by one, unless a Money-Handling skill roll is made, and if it is equal, down by two. Normally it is not possible to purchase something above a character's Wealth, unless they succeed at haggling. Money-Handling is also used to ensure liquidity away from home. Wealth is sticky to Social Class; every month it will move one point towards a character's Social Class, whilst in a social environment. Wealth can also be borrowed with a 1:1 equation, although this doesn't quite work with the order of magnitude in changes suggested by the sample treasures. Dividing discovered Wealth depends on the quantity of people who are sharing the value. In general, work provides a Wealth level equal to what is stated in the profession description, but again the money handling skill can modify this.
Item quality varies of course and more expensive items cost more with weapons causing bonus damage, armour protecting better or weighing less and so forth. Encumbrance is handled by the "bulk" rules, which compares against the character's carrying capacity resulting in an appropriate penalty based on the bulkiest item, but with a modifier of four items of the same amount giving a value of that item + 1. The list of available items is really quite extensive, covering everything from marbles to ships, with brief descriptions and prices. It is quite probable that some of the prices are not quite right; one that is quickly picked up (because one follows the other) is the cost of college tuition (11 per year) and the cost of a concubine's companionship for an evening - 11 per night. It is also at this point where one is really introduced to the detail that arises in the combat system. Each weapon, apart from having the usual requirements in terms of cost, Social Class, Bulk, minimum strength, optimal and maximum range, breakage value etc, also has three damage ratings, for cutting, slashing, and piercing damage. Likewsie armour gives variable protection against these damage classes as well as burn, shock, and acid.
Movement, Combat and Injury
The combat system is run over two second segments and one yard hexes. The game uses the historically time-consuming (and this is no different) method of declaration of actions in reverse order initiative with actions carried out in initiative order. As part of the declaration, characters must declare their combat stance (aggressive, bold, cautious, defensive, evasive) and primary opponent. In each round there is a "phase 0", used for recovery, getting up, breaking grapples, etc. On their normal phase character actions are the expected list; various forms of move, attacks, grapples, group actions, change or ready a weapon, cast spells etc. It's quite a comprehensive list which includes feints, aiming, called shots, trips, pushes, coordinated attacks, size up opponents, etc. Actions such as talking, squatting, lying down do not count as actions. Defense is described as a "pseudo-action"; a type is declared and applies for the entire round. It includes dodging, shield blocking, parries, and weapon blocks.
Movement is described in abstract or detail, with engagement zones related to the range of a weapon with a maximum of four (the magic number), which tends to be a defining zone of control for ranged weapons. Moving in an engagement zone requires a maneuver test, otherwise free movement is used with distance based on characteristic plus skill, modified by terrain. As an example Running is (AGL + Running skill) × 4 hexes in a straight line; so about 16 yards in 2 seconds for a trained runner, which is pretty reasonable.
Attacks are pretty logical in accord to the system; the precise nature of mishaps are determined by the variation die, a successful hit uses the variation die for location with variation due to cover. An intercept (due to defense) requires a test of breakages. Initial damage is equal to the difference between the strike result and the defender's result, averaged by the weapon's damage factor. A critical success adds 4 points to your initial damage. Armour subtracts from this damage according to the damage type, and then Toughness as well. To illustrate the somewhat unusual damage calculation, an example from the book:
You hit your opponent with a roll of 10, versus their roll of 3. The difference is 7, making it a critical hit. Your weapon's damage factor is 4, so the base damage before the critical effect is ((7 + 4)/2 =) 6, and the total initial damage is therefore (6 + 4 =) 10.
Damage itself is applied to characteristics, albeit not Eloquence, Social Class, Divine Favour, or Aura. If any characteristic is at zero, the character must check against unconsciousness. Damage is applied in a cascading fashion according to hit location and damage type. If the total of negative characteristics is reduced to -4, the character is dead. Likewise, if a single cutting attack to the head, arm or leg causes four or more points of effective damage and causes death decapitation or dismemberment is assumed (whether man, mouse, or mammoth). Likewise, if a single wound causes 8 or more points of effective damage, permanent effects may result.
In addition to people whacking other people, there is the usual variety of environmental dangers. Blade and Crown gives examples of diseases (with medieval-flavoured names), the necessary drowning and falling, fire, acid, shock, poisons and drugs, static damage sources, and extreme temperature. These have the same general system for avoidance; an appropriate skill and characteristic in a dice pool versus an avoidability penalty with effects based on the five grades of success and failure. Oddly positioned after these natural hazards is is an extensive range of combat spot rules covering checks like aiming, clever attacks, feints, disarming, grappling, swarm attacks, large beasts (which are immune to bleeding), mass combat, mounted combat, surprise, and others. Finally, the combat system also includes rules for madness and morale, based on Composure tests.
Religion and Magic
Religions are defined by by codes of conduct (orthopraxy) and belief (orthodoxy), collectively represented in the game as tenet, defined as major or minor, and further differentiated as restrictions and requirements. All religions worship or venerate Powers, with characteristics related to their tenets (e.g., Benevolence, Lawfulness, etc). Most religions have multiple Powers. Characters must keep in good graces with their chosen power, passing tests at a "time of reckoning". Some of these methods can include sacrifices, quests, and the like. Divine favour allows the priests of a religion to use spells, as well as to call directly upon Powers in a miraculous fashion, some with extreme levels (e.g., Destroying an entire kingdom), although these are understandably rare. Religious characters also have the capacity to engage in oaths and and to send curses, although the latter must come with a cause.
Again with a hat-tip to Swordbearer magic is powered through elemental nodes of various magnitude, invisible to the untrained eye, which cover physical and psychological characteristics; Air, Crystal, Dark, Earth, Fire, Life, Light, Metal, Spirit and Water. Magicians control nodes, diseases are alien replacements of nodes, ghosts are a nodal disorder. A magicians finds a node, extracts it, aligns it, contains it, and then casts magic using the node. Finding a node is easier in extreme and pure manifestations of the element with the magnitude dominating the expression. Node extraction is a delicate process, with mishaps causing particularly destructive results. Extraction from living creatures (causing death) is also an option for those of a necromantic persuasion. The alignment of the node allows the magician to be in harmony with the node whilst also tapping its power and the process varies according to the element. Nodes are then contained into objects, usually specific gems, but gold being a popular universal node-holder. There are options for nodes to also be contained in glyphs, and even "mystic words", which strikes as a little incongruous.
Regardless of the success in casting, attempting to cast a spell exhausts the node, with the node requiring a day to recharge (p111), although this is later changed to a day per order of magnitude (p116), although the magician can regenerate a node fast by chanting etc. Spell casting is quite a quick process, typically twice the spell's magnitude in seconds. A short description of about 15 spells per node is provided, although with some variation in magnitude between the elements (for example, wind magics stop at 5 whereas metal magics continue to 9 magnitude). The descriptions are woefully inadequate with little in the way of game-system integration, a shocking oversight given how careful the game had been in describing effects to this point. Consider, for example, description for the 3 magnitude air magic spell Thunderclap "Causes a great and powerful clap of thunder to emerge, deafening and scaring those around", or the metal magic spell which "Gives one sharp weapon incredible keenness for quite a while." Magic items are created by the use of at least two nodes, one aligned to a Permanence spell and the other to the actual spell desired. They can be made more complex with a Bound Enchantment spell.
The Outdoors: Travel and Bestiary
The Travel chapter starts with a useful set of charts of average miles per hour according to mode of transports, including foot, horseback, and a wide array of boats and shipping, with the former differentiated by terrain type. Boats and ships are detailed according to speed, propulsion system, seaworthiness, integrity, crew, capacity, and cost. Each of these has a brief description - except for "crew" for some reason. Navigation, rate of travel, and ship damage are both tasks with explicit modifiers. Whilst it is pleasing to have a couple of pages dedicated to shipping, it is surprising that the same attention is not given to horse, cart, and coach which are most certainly equally, if not more, important.
A useful set of standard human encounters is provided; bandits, guards, knights, mercenaries, merchants, peasants, peasants, poachers, sailors, and thieves (surely the last two are the same?), along with a collection of other intelligent species, including "dragonmen" (they don't breathe fire), diminutive cheeky elves, the even smaller faeries, gargoyles, goblins, ogres, and trolls. Following this is a collection of around fifty non-intelligent monsters and normal animals that provide a modicum of martial challenge (e.g., basilisks, bears, elementals, dragons, ghouls, mules, sharks, vampires and more). These are pretty much stat-blocks with only the most minimal description, which often portrays fantastic beliefs rather than accuracy - for example, the whale is described as follows (and this is the complete description): "Great water dwelling leviathans that like to break up ships and eat sailors, not out of hunger but out of pure spite."
GM Notes and Appendix
There is a short section on GM and Design Notes which cover game-specific tools (e.g., tracking Trait use), rule elaborations (e.g., new skills), and applications (how to use social class, placement of nodes), and NPC generation. There is a world creation section, which starts as a checklist with questions, before becoming more substantial in the discussion of various legal systems and technologies.
More significantly is a sample adventure, The Gift Map, which is quite a good addition for a fairly short book. It's an oceanic adventure which a substantial amount of description and mapping spent on the ship. Except it's not really an adventure as such; more a starting point for sandbox elaboration. There is, as necessary, a kicker to get the PCs in the position that they are, but apart from that it's a case of exploration of places and confirmation of rumours rather than any narrative impetus. The only characters of any note whatsoever (and even that is modest at best) is the captain and first mate, although the ship's cat does receive an important spotlight for sometime.
In addition to the sample scenario, there's a collection of adventure seeds which can spur the imagination. In a similar fashion, the first appendix gives examples of specific rules such as the contents of sample books, fighting styles, and religions.
As a whole Blade & Crown is difficult to evaluate. Although the specific grades that following often give a middling result this in itself is an average of the experiences. For example, whilst there is indeed great substance in most of the magic system, the actual description of the spells themselves is somewhat lacking. The quantity and scope of the various bestiary creatures is fairly impressive, the lack of ecological context is damaging. On each of the core elements of what fantasy roleplaying games are typically evaluated; character generation and development, combat and skills, magic and religion, creatures and the environment, Blade & Crown does indeed cover all the bases, and does so in a manner that is inconsistent.
I certainly do recommend the the game for a read, and there are some interesting ideas, especially with the variation die and the use of traits. These features alone make the game worth purchasing. As a whole however, in a market which does offer an enormous range of choice, one cannot help but think that the more discerning gamer is going to pick something with a more intuitive system and greater completeness.
Style: 1 + .6 (layout) + .5 (art) + .5 (coolness) + .5 (readability) + .5 (product) = 3.6
Substance: 1 + .5 (content) + .7 (text) + .5 (fun) + .5 (workmanship) + .5 (system) = 3.7