Review: Crimson Dragon Slayer

Crimson Dragon Slayer is a homage to geeky pop culture of the 1980s and early 90s. It’s core ingredients are:

  • Classic Dungeons and Dragons
  • 8-bit Arcade games
  • Fantasy films ranging in quality (and ratings) from well-known and beloved works such as the Never-ending Story and Conan to sleazy B movies like the Sword and the Sorcerer and Deathstalker.
  • Media about mundane, real-world people being inexplicably transported into another world, such as Tron and the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.

The book itself is an entertaining read, full of humour and clever references.

The Facts

Crimson  Dragon Slayer is a 42 page book that can be mostly used as a stand-alone game system.  It contains many greyscale images, several of them full page. Pages 5-16 cover character creation, 16-25 are the basic rules and equipment tables, 26-28 are magic rules, 29-31 are magic items and 31 has some high level info about factions and monsters. The last pages are devoted to a dungeon that can be used right after character creation.

An anecdotal aside or preface:

(please skip if you don’t care and just want to know about this game without sentimentality)

CrimsonDragonInvaders300dpiI grew up in the 1980s and was just the right age for all manner of media and marketing. When I was a child, video games were primitive and clunky, tv cartoons were poorly animated and lousy, there was no internet and mobile phones were used  exclusively as phones by the super rich and famous.

Like others of my generation, I’ve witnessed the gradual evolution of technology and entertainment (at least in terms of technical quality). Things have been getting progressively better and better. However there’s a huge pop culture revival of this primitive age of awkward electronics. Even people born in the 2000s have jumped onto this bandwagon. Everyone is cashing in on this nostalgic wave, producing works that have the veneer of the 80s but are far, far superior in quality and style. Modern indie game developers are creating “old school” video games that aren’t at all: to be old school you’d need an extremely limited colour palate, awkward, clunky controls hampered by cheap, stiff controllers and an insane difficulty setting that was implemented to separate children from their quarters, not out of some  noble ideology to teach people to earn their victories.

In a way, this is very similar to the Victorian revival of the medieval “dark” ages. Those people heavily and inaccurately romanticized a time period that really wasn’t all that great. But the artists, writers and musicians produced wonderful works from this nostalgic devotion to a time period that never existed.

All that being said, I sincerely love this hype infecting everything from fashion, music, film and video games. It’s like being a child again, only everything is BETTER now, despite the frequent superficiality and cynicism.

So when I came across a role playing game that revels in this nostalgia, my interest is piqued, to say the least. Especially when your character is a regular Joe or Jane who gets an avatar in a digital fantasy world where the ultimate goal is to slay the Crimson Dragon and then marry (or become) the Queen of the world. All to the tune of wailing keytars and airbrushed laser fire.

Writing

As usual, Venger’s writing is clear and easy to understand. While he does inject humour and hyperbole it never detracts from the meaning or overall point. No problems here.

Art and layout

In terms of layout and typesetting, this is probably my favourite of Venger’s works. His usual watermark is no longer centered and distracting to me: it is pushed off into the margins, which is both elegant and more readable. A very good choice, in my opinion.

I find that a couple of the tables or lists could have been laid out differently, such as kept to a single page or a few merged to make them easier to use. I’ll get into more detail about this below. The content of these tables and lists never disappointed, though. To be clear, it was all useful stuff; just a bit unpolished in terms of organization.

The artwork is fantastic: very well drawn and all of it helps to set the quirky mood of the game. Very tongue-in-cheek with crazy action, monstrous creatures, video game and movie references and, of course, some cheesecake.

The full-page illustrations by Benito Gallego in particular stand out. They’re incredible!

The book suffers from a lack of an index or table of contents. While the page count isn’t huge, I had to flip through all over the place to find answers to find things.

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Character creation

Character creation is fun: you create a person from the real world, determining the basics like their career and starting money (“cyber crowns”, which are directly transformed from the cash that each one has in their wallet or purse).

When the game begins, your character gets sucked into an arcade game (digitized as in Tron) and appears in a strange, weird world. If (when?) they die, they appear back in the real world, in front of the same arcade game staring at the next quarter lined up on the counter.

You generate ability scores by 3d6, in order, in the usual D&D abilities (except that Wisdom is Willpower). The resulting stats get categorized into groups instead of flat modifiers, each affecting game mechanics in unique ways. For example, a poor strength (or, “Pathetic” strength) reduces your melee damage and you cannot wield two-handed or large weapons. A below average strength just applies a small penalty to all melee damage, average gets a small bonus and extraordinary (18 or higher) gets a larger bonus.

The other ability scores behave similarly: Dexterity affects armor class, Constitution affects Hit Points etc… There’s some very interesting stuff in here that goes beyond the usual generic bonuses or penalties seen in other d20 games.

You then determine or choose your previous (mundane, real-world) career and your new name. This is done by rolling on two separate name tables which you are encouraged to mix and match into something cool. To give you an idea, I rolled three times (twice on the first and once on the second) and ended up with Fire, God and Scream, which I ended up combining into Scream Godfire, which sounds super awesome. Another attempt came up with Jackson Cybershield. To be blunt: this is an awesome name generating system.

To be super nit-picky, I think that these two d100 tables could have been combined somehow or laid out differently. Right now they trail across three pages but could have been confined into two, with each list occupying a single, full page instead of starting on one and finishing on another.

Cash is determined randomly for each character with the exact same number of dice and then you’re encouraged, rather briefly, to create “Something Interesting” about your character. This feature should be unique and set them apart from others. This has no direct mechanical benefit, but I suppose that it could be used, in conjunction with your background career, to provide bonuses to dice rolls depending on the context. They could work like Aspects in Fate, in other words.

Next you choose a race, which includes the standard fantasy tropes (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, etc…) but also some cool, different ones, such as Robot, Reptilian and “Pixie Fairy Princess”. The choice of race affects your ability scores, your starting Hit Points and perhaps provides a special racial trait. Cool stuff, so far everything is simple and fun.

Lastly you choose one of the four classes: Warrior, Wizard, Thief and Ranger. Each provides its own hit dice which are rolled when levelling up.

  • The Fighter is simple straightforward: can use all weapons and armor and is a veritable monster in combat. They never change or get better at what they do (which is very effective from the start), other than getting more hit points.
  • The wizard can cast spells. The system is rather simple and easy to work with (see Magic, below). Starting at a certain level they can create a signature magic item or spell for 1,000 cyber crowns (anything that they want, once per level).
  • The Thief has the usual collection of thief-y proficiencies and can do sneak attacks way. At a certain level they can specialise as either a spellcasting rogue or an assassin.
  • The Ranger has several very interesting abilities (probably the most out of any class) and a choice of eventually specializing as either a shape-changing Shaman or as a stout Defender.

The classes are rather traditional, without any big surprises, but I rather liked their simplicity and the range of special abilities. Nicely done, although other critics more concerned with mechanical balance might view them differently. I “felt” no issues, personally, other than the fact that the Warrior doesn’t really get to affect the world substantially outside of combat. To be fair that’s an issue that I have with just about every fantasy game out there. Poor fighter: you’re always a little dull outside of actual fights, aren’t you?

The game is missing a character sheet. While everything could fit onto a single 3×5 cue card, I think that a full character sheet with some handy spots for reference would have been a nice addition.

Rules

CDS uses Venger’s elegantly simple d6 system. You roll a number of dice depending on the difficulty of the task at hand (fewer dice for more challenging things, more for better circumstances or context). The average difficulty is 2 or 3 dice. You only count the highest die result. 1 is a terrible failure, 2 is a straight up regular fail, 3 and 4 are successes at some cost (or partial success), 5 is a pass, 6 provides a special, extra benefit. This mechanic is consistently and universally applied to every kind of task. I’m a fan of universal dice mechanics, so this is right up my alley.

This mechanic also applies to things like Saving Throws. I could not find any mention of how to handle these in the book (but a Dexterity-based saving throw is mentioned in the dungeon at the end).  I asked the author, whose answer made sense: just make a ruling on how hard the saving throw should be based on the character’s stat versus any relevant circumstances. The standard d6 mechanic still applies. That’s cool with me!

I really like this system and it’s almost deceptive simplicity. It’s all too easy to overthink the rules and search through the book for a specific answer on how to handle a specific task, but it is all pretty much covered by the basic mechanic.

Each player gets a finite source of bonus dice which can be used to boost rolls. These only recharge after a long rest but only if they get sexual gratification with another individual. This harkens back to Apocalypse World, with it’s trademark “Sex Moves”, so it will be familiar to some readers. In either game, this can be tweaked if the players aren’t comfortable with that sort of thing. One could allow a re-charge of these points for any kind of activity that fits a character’s race and class. The Barbarian-type might be fine with a riotous night of binge drinking, for example.

Armor class reduces damage, which again simplifies the system by avoiding any extra complications to the core dice mechanic. I like this as it eliminates the often-debated nature of combat in roleplaying games (as in, how armor makes you harder to hit).

Death is handled this way: if you get to zero hit points, you’re unconscious but stable. If you get into negative values, you have to make a Death Saving throw. The difficulty is directly based on your Constitution score (in retrospect, I would have liked this mentioned back in the section about Ability Scores, even just in passing). If you fail, you’re done for and you re-appear in the real world, in front of the arcade machine, ready to play again. Remarkable success means coming back to life with some or even all of your lost hit points.

Because of the slightly “video-gamey” nature that is hinted at and the implied high lethality (which is confirmed in the sample dungeon at the end), once could be merciful as a Game Master and offer the players “extra lives”, either at the very start and/or as in-game rewards. WARNING: house rules: Any penalties for this could be based on a variety of video games. Perhaps a Game Master could offer a choice upon character death:

  • a loss of money, gear or even levels to let the character instantly reappear wherever they died,
  • re-start at the “beginning” of the dungeon with a milder penalty
  • reappear at another “save” point, such as the last Inn or tavern where they had rested: sure you’re potentially far away, but without any penalty (loss of gear or levels)

To be clear, this is my interpretation and other gamers who prefer brutal, unforgiving lethality will be happy with the default settings.

Once again, I’m expressing how much fun a group could have with this game with their own personalization. The game runs smoothly as-is, of course, but I like to contemplate these things.

Levelling Up is really, really cool. Gone are the expansive tables full of numbers: heroes and heroines go up a level once they’ve accomplished a major milestone. The ones in the book are fun enough, but therein lies the high value of this game: this chart can be modified to suit any kind of campaign or story. The Game Master could set his or her own milestones to gauge when the party members level up. One could even go a step further: each character could have their own level-up conditions, based on a mix of their race and class. The point is that this is really flexible and full of potential.

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Magic

The system is also very simple: spells consume Willpower on a point-per-point basis depending on level (ex: a level 3 spell consumes 3 Willpower). It’s simple and keeps the spell-casters from spamming too much magic all of the time. It’s also flexible in that a Wizard can cast spells outside of his or her level at extra cost.

It isn’t explicitly spelled out (pun not intended), but it appears that casting magic requires a standard dice roll based on your Willpower stat, modified by the target’s Willpower. So a Wizard will have an easier time using magic on the weak willed and a duel between spell casters will be tense.

The spells are fairly standard but some are more memorable than others because of their humorous names, such as “Taste the Rainbow” and “Face Melt”.

Magic items

Just like the Spells, the magic items provided are usable enough if not unremarkable, except for their often (very) humorous names and effects.

Factions

Each player randomly determines some relationship, good, ill or just awkward, to one of six big league players of the setting. What’s fun about this is how they’re just names: freely interpreted by each Game Master (and even by the players). There’s an opportunity for some collaborative, world building here, if your group likes that sort of thing. Or, a Game Master could simply nab ideas that the players come up with, making one’s job easier and strengthening the players’ interest in the setting. All around a great idea, but I don’t understand why this bit wasn’t included in the character creation section…

Monsters

The monster section could have used a bit more detail. It is very short (two small paragraphs). It also outlines how to convert monsters from other OSR systems. It looks like it works just fine, though.

The premise is simple: it has an attack dice pool equal to half of its HD. Very simple, straightforward and minimalistic. In this game, the Game Master makes a ruling on monster stats based on the situation at hand: no need of a monster manual here. The stat blocks from Dungeon World would probably work very well in this game because they focus less on stats and more on what the creature does or how it attacks.

The only sample monsters are in the dungeon.

Dungeon

CDS includes a short dungeon delve called the Cavern of Carnage. It is chock-full of funny references and interesting encounters. Some are very deadly, others plain weird.  I won’t spoil anything, but all that I can say is that there’s a good, solid evening of gonzo adventuring here, even if it makes no sense at all.

Conclusion

Crimson Dragon Slayer is a very neat, rules-light and light-hearted gonzo roleplaying game. It is well written, nicely laid-out, beautifully illustrated and it looks like it’s a blast to play. It suffers from disorganization, no index and is often deceptively simple. By that I mean that you’ll be scratching your head about what appears to be a huge gap in the rules only to realize later that it’s covered by the core dice mechanic. Pretty much everything can be summed up in the Ability Score section, really.

The game makes me think of Dungeon World and World of Dungeons: extremely simple to play, open to interpretation, Game Master Ruling and even collaborative world-building. The core concept of real-world people sucked into a crazy world of video game references and 80s sci-fi/fantasy films is super fun and full of potential.

The author states that some of the subject matter isn’t to be taken too seriously and I hope that other critics won’t immediately assume bad faith when they come across  references to the retro sexism prevalent in grindhouse and b-movie fantasy, sci-fi and horror films.

All in all, I recommend this game as a worthy addition to your library because it offers lots of cool, fun ideas that are compatible with just about any edition of D&D, OSR systems and even Dungeon World and its cousins.

You can purchase Crimson Dragon Slayer here.

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