Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Castles & Crusades Codex Celtarum

Castles & Crusades Codex Celtarum

Oh I have have been looking forward to this book and doing this review for a while.
Regular readers here know that I LOVE Celtic myths.  I filled Ghosts of Albion with them, the Witch has them as well and there are plenty of posts here about them.  Though for me it isn't just Celtic myths, but Irish myth in particular.  That is a fine distinction to be sure, but one that is important on how I judge or rate materials for a Celtic game.

Long time readers also know that I have been working on a long delayed project, Éire.  This was going to be completely focused on Irish myths and legends with just enough real history to make it feel right.  Low magic, high adventure.  I wanted to emulate the tales of Fionn MacCumhail and Cú Chulainn.  When I first heard about this game I thought to myself: Well, that's it then. I don't need to do this.  Besides I can't compete with Troll Lords.  Not just in terms of production value or resources (Brian Young is getting a Ph.D. in this! I am at best an enthusiastic amateur) but I also don't want to outright compete with them.  I like their stuff and I like to see companies I like do well.  So Éire, for the moment is on hold.  Some of it has gone into Eldritch Witchery, where it is a good fit.  Other bits will show up here and there.  Maybe one day I will come back to it, but for now just expect to see the same material show up here.

But enough about never-were and might-of-beens.  Let's talk about the book I have and you can have actually in your hands.  I supported the Kickstarter for this so I got a PDF, Hardcover and some modules of my choice.  I will say this for Troll Lords. They are quite generous with their KickStarter incentives.

The Codex Celtarum is written by Brian Young.  He is a gamer and an academic in Celtic history and languages and all around nice guy.  Honestly he is the kind of guy I want writing this sort of thing.  You talk to him and get the feeling that he could immediately tell you a story from the Mabinogion and it would roll off his tongue like the bards of old.  This is the guy you want working on your Celtic game.

The first thing I noticed in his introduction was his acknowledgement of the differences in legend and in history and where he was putting his cards.  For me, as someone that has had to have the same tug of war, the value of this book went up several degrees.
Before moving on to the book itself I spent a lot of time with Castles & Crusades again, this time from the point of view of a Celtic-themed game.  Honestly I think it might be one of the better systems to do it with.

The book itself is divided into eight sections plus the forward.
Now at this point it should be noted that the design of this book is to play in a Faery realm, so it is something you can drop into any game world.  There are some game-based assumptions made, but nothing to keep you from making this your own.

Chapter 1: Once Upon A Time covers the creation of the Celtic universe including the various wars that happened at the dawn of time and various personalities.  We are introduced to various gods.  The Horned One and the Blue Hag take central stage.  At this point I want to say that reading this is like reading a story of old as an adult; familiar yet nuanced in ways I didn't know then.  For me the myths and tales this is based on are familiar, but this is new telling for a new world. We are treated to so many names that are familiar and new at the same time; The Tuatha Dé Dannan, Danu, Lir, Goíbhníu, it's like hearing the names of old friends. In a mere 6 pages we have the whole background of the world to the present day. Nothing extra, nothing left out.

Chapter 2: In Lands Far Away details the physical and metaphysical lands of Faery and mortal plane they touch. There are the Two Cauldrons,  Night & Day (which have affects on the faery) and the Twelve Houses   of the Gods (with a cool map). Given the subject the human lands are the British Ilses and Ireland and given the author we get a lot of Welsh names.  The faery lands don't have the same rules of nature as the mortal realms. So there are some tables about the odd passage of time or the nature of the land.  Normally I would balk at this sort of randomness, but here it not only works, it is part and parcel of the mythos. BTW if you don't quite recognize the map of the lands, hold it up to a mirror.

Chapter 3: There Lived a People has everything you want to know about the Faery races.  This includes the major sub-races (Light, Darkness and Twilight) and traits faeries can have.  Now the utility of this chapter should be obvious. I will also add that if you want to give your FRPG Elves a nice shot in the arm then adopt this part of book. We are given detail (in terms of monster stat blocks) of the Children of Light, Children of Twilight and Children of Darkness.  Nearly every Celtic-fae type is here in one form or another. There are lot of new creatures here (unless you are very familiar with Celtic myths) and some that I don't believe have ever been featured in a game book before.  There are also plenty of Faery beasts and supernatural animals.  We also get some giants, but no stats since they are legendary.

Chapter 4: Great of Magic and Power details, what else, magic.  If human wizards study magic and human priests pray for it then the Fae ARE magic. The distinction is not a subtle one.  The magical powers here are listed as spells. So they can be used by the fae as if they were spells, but that robs them of what makes them so interesting. Instead go with the suggestion in the book that each member of the fae get a number of special powers based on their intelligence.  And there are plenty of powers here!  If you are anything like me and love magic, spells or powers for characters then this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  I have to admit I am pleased to see similar powers here as to what I have in Ghosts of Albion under Faerie Powers.  It tells me that we were drawing from similar sources.  There are plenty of differences though allowing for personal preference, but it shows that Brian and I were thinking along similar lines.

Chapter 5: Strong of Feats and Deeds handles what the Celts did best. Fighting.  Well they did other things too, but this is what those stories were all about.  If your fighting-type characters felt left out in the last chapter, then this is one help you out.  Plenty of options. I particularly liked the Tattoo magic.  There are feats as well. Before you panic these are feats in the traditional sense of the word and there are only a score of them.  If you have read any of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, then these are the feats of Cú Chulainn.   There are also some fighting orders detailed such as The War Sisters, the Fian (Fianna) and the Dragons of Prydain (of which the most famous is Arthur).

Chapter 6: With Great Gods and Heroes covers the gods, demigods and heroes of the lands.  We have been introduced to a few already like The Horned One and his wild Hunt. Arthur is mentioned as well as my personal favorite Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool).  There are no stats for these gods or heroes.  Why? That is easy. They are not meant to be killed or even interacted with.  They are the legends of this land.

Chapter 7: Great of Name and Mighty of Deeds covers new rules.  First up are changes to the various character classes.  Not a lot needs to be altered here.  Again as I mentioned above, the classes in C&C are based around concepts and skills rather than powers, these can translate better.  There are some new classes too. The Woodwose is something like a wildman, a mix of barbarian and ranger.  These are humans that have lived in Faery a little too long.  The Wolf Charmer are something like a Beast Master.  They charm animals to follow them.   There are some adventure hooks from classical Celtic tales.  A list of names for characters from Brythonic and Gaelic roots.

The last part, Chapter 8: Items Enchanted and Divine, are all the pieces that didn't fit above. But it still has a lot of good material.  We get a nice discussion on Faery Metals and how they can be used.  There is a list of divine items (artifacts in other games) listed by owner; that's right the Gáe Bulga is not just lying around waiting for you to find it. No this +8 spear (!) is well in the hands of Cú Chulainn.
Ogham is discussed and the various societies and cultures of the heroic age; the Picts, the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons and the Gaels. Holidays around the isles are also detailed.
We end with a map.

Ok. So what can say here.
First the book is absolutely excellent. I am insane with jealousy on how good it is really.  At 176 pages it crams a lot into space.   I love the feel of this book. There is something about that just feels right to me and it makes C&C the perfect system to play a Celtic-based Faery game.  Now. Some points of clarification again.  This isn't a book about playing in a Celtic society per se.  There is no "day in the life of a Celtic warrior" bit.  Only lip service is given to Bronze Age tech or what the larger Gaelic society was like.  Also this book isn't about playing "weird elves".  There is nothing here for example from the Germanic tradition of Faerie stories. The aim of this book is very specific.  If you are looking for one of the above sorts of books then this might not fit your bill.
But if you are looking for a book to play in that intersection of Celtic myth and Faery lore, then this is the book you want.
As with all C&C books the layout is clean and easy to read. The art is fantastic.
If you are a fan of Celtic myth, Faery lore, or Castles & Crusades then I highly recommend this book.  Even if you don't play C&C, I would get this book.


Tim Knight said...

My copy is in the post from Leisure Games in London (as much as I like Troll Lord Games' stuff their postal rates to the UK are insanely expensive, either through Kickstarters or their webstore) and I'm even more excited now I've read your write-up.

Are you aware of the comic strip Sláine in the 2000AD comic book? Writer Pat Mills is a bit of an expert on Celtic myths and this on-going saga embraces as much of that rich mythology as humanly possible:

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Oh yes, I know of Sláine and I even have the Mongoose d20 and RQ versions of the game. There is something though about this one I like better.

Tim Knight said...

I thought you would ;)

I have the d20 version, but I'm looking to Codex Celtarum to be the book I use to bring a Celtic flavour to my games - the old Mongoose books will just be back-up resources for the more quirky, comic book elements.

Konsumterra said...

Im a bronze age euro celt fan - post roman doesn't float my boat - mabinogion reads very roman. I asked writer early on about scope. Got my bias from archeology - still have all my notes for treasure and maps

The fairy stuff you speak of interests me though.

Brian N. Young said...

I originally tried to include the Pre-Roman era stuff, as vague and mostly unknown as that is in this project, but it never could work out. The Post-Roman era is the best, and obviously 'Arthurian' period in which all of these myths and legends came into some form of documentation. I also wanted to include Celtic Europe as a whole in the many drafts but it was just not clicking right without some data from Gaul or Galatia, so the British Isles was it.

The Mabinogion reads Christian more than Roman, and large chunks of its original Pre-Christian elements were edited out by monks. Culhwlch ac Olwen retains a lot of its pagan material though. Sadly we cant base this sort of setting on pure archaeology at all since that data does not give us any myths or folklore.