Crimson Dragon Slayer is an OSR game that turns the bog-standard mechanic “roll a d20 and add some stuff” into a fun d6 dice pool system that’s at once simple and also contains enough permutations for some awesome tricks. While the game and setting are a bit too barebones for immediate pick-up-and-play, the game is a fantastic beer & pretzels-style D&D clone that can easily leverage other OSR content and mix it with all the most gonzo elements of 80’s films like Conan (the R-rated one!), Legend, Krull, and that ilk.
Rating: Content 4/5 and Form 3/5.
Read on for the full review!
If you’re familiar with the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, you might remember the tale of a bunch of kids that head to a theme park, go on the D&D rollercoaster ride there, and get magically transported to the realm of Dungeons & Dragons. There they are gifted with the iconic class abilities and magic items, and set out on a quest to save that fantastic land from all sorts of monstrous foes.
Have you ever wondered what it’d be like to run that premise, but with the much more adult-oriented sleaze and cheese of 80’s fantasy movies like Conan (the R-rated one), the dark and bizarre magic of Legend (Tim Curry’s finest makeup job), or the weirdly deformed sci-fi/fantasy love-child that was Krull?
That’s the premise of Crimson Dragon Slayer, except I left out the part that it starts with a Tron-like sequence in which your component atoms are sucked into an 80’s computer roleplaying game (called Crimson Dragon Slayer, of course) and that’s how you get to this insane land of freakozoid madness, called Thule.
Quick Warning: Like a few of Kort’thalis Publishing’s other works, the beefcake and sleaze of R-rated 80’s action movies is purposely at the heart of this game’s premise. So if you’re offended by the idea that a long rest to regenerate your hit points and bonus dice pretty much requires sexual relations, this probably isn’t the game for you. It’s not offensively written into the mechanics or meant to be any sort of commentary on anything — though the language does speak to an almost strictly male perspective regardless of whether it’s talking about characters or players — but it’s just one more ridiculous trope among many (such as over-the-top gore during critical hits) that reinforce the mentality of the game. You’ve been warned.
Somewhere between DRAGON Magazine‘s early issues and Mentzer’s Dungeons & Dragons Basic game there was a rule for ability checks that involved rolling several d6s — usually 3d6, but sometimes upwards of 5d6 — and comparing the results to one of your character’s Ability Scores to determine if you were successful at some action that wasn’t really covered by most of the usual rules. Something like tightrope walking or making a disguise to fool non-humanoid creatures might fall under this. The point was that the multiple d6s created more of a bell-curve in terms of potential results, and thus would usually but not always fall within the range of possibility for mid-range Ability Scores.
It looks like Kort’thalis Publishing’s Crimson Dragon Slayer has taken the kernel of that idea and forged an entire OSR game around it, which means you get to play D&D but with way more opportunities to pick up fistfulls of dice. Dice buckets aren’t just for fireballs anymore!
Thusly, the mechanics of the game are built not around the d20 but instead around pools of 6-sided dice that you compare the highest die rolled to a rather simple table of results, where 6 is a critical success, 5 is a success, 4 a partial success, 3 a partial failure, 2 a failure, and 1 a critical failure. These results, however, aren’t entirely open-ended or “narrative” but have concrete mechanical implications. For instance, getting a 4 (partial success) means half-damage on an attack, while a 3 would be minimum damage (1 point of damage).
There are plenty of permutations, too, so this isn’t some barebones system by any means. Every 6 that comes up in your dice pool counts towards giving you bonus effects on your action, called Dominance. There are six potential effects (yay symmetry!) and if you’ve got multiple 6s, you can choose that many effects or double-up on any of the effects; basically whatever combination you want. The Dominance effects are things like triggering stunts or special abilities, imposing penalties on the victim’s next action, gaining bonus dice on your next action, increasing your damage rolls, and other things along those lines.
The number of dice rolled are determined by a graduated chart that seems simple enough to commit to memory, and each step along the path also gets a “name” of sorts so that various mechanics can refer to them easily: if you have “advantage” you are rolling 3d6, so a special ability (say from your character’s race) simply says that you have “advantage when trying to show-off or make a good impression.” The dice rolls are:
- Super disadvantage: roll 2d6, read the lowest die as your result.
- Disadvantage: roll 1d6.
- Standard: roll 2d6.
- Advantage: roll 3d6.
- Super advantage: roll 4d6.
- Super-duper advantage: roll 5d6, but only if you make a cheesy 80’s movie-style one-liner while attempting the action. (“He’s DEAD tired!”)
- Advantage supreme: roll 6d6, but only after making your one-liner and getting the aid of magic (through an item, spell, etc.).
- God Mode: roll 7d6, but you can only do this by speaking your one-liner, getting the aid of magic, and being 10th level (which is appropriately titled “Dragon Slayer”).
Each of these levels comes with accompanying descriptions that make it very clear when a character is rolling what number of dice. There’s not a lot of room for wiggle, but there is room to account for situational modifiers, character abilities, and player inventiveness and/or “cool roleplaying moments,” which is very much in the spirit of this game’s setting.
A character’s level — which we’ll talk about more below — translates to a pool of bonus dice that refresh after every night’s sleep (or “long rest”) that can be used on any rolls. So, a 3rd level character has 3 six-sided dice that they can either toss all at once on a single roll or split up however they want over various rolls made throughout the day. It’s not entirely clear if these bonus dice are used as part of the seeming “maximum” dice pool for standard characters (i.e. even with bonus dice you can’t roll more than 5d6 without magical aid and you can’t ever roll 7d6 until you’re 10th level), but considering they refresh every day I’d tend to think that they operate outside of those dice pool rules, and thus can be spent however you see fit.
Initiative is handled through a set order of action types: movement goes first, ranged weapons next, melee weapons after that, and spells last. Similar actions occur simultaneously, so you could technically resolve your action that kills a goblin but if he was doing the same type of action he still gets to resolve his before he’s officially dead.
Other rules are generally very simple, and while couched in “old school” ideas they tend toward “new school” simplicity. Armor Class is actually straight-up damage reduction (+2 AC means you subtract 2 from damage that you take), healing is handled in short and long rests that recover hit points and refresh Hit Dice, and there are Death Saving Throws that occur once you’ve hit negative numbers in your current hit points.
We’ll talk more about specific rules below — character creation, magic, monsters — but it’s worth noting that this game delivers it’s rules in a minimum of words, in a fun and enthusiastic conversational tone, and is generally great about explaining everything without resorting to lots of examples. This is great for anyone passingly familiar with OSR games or any d20/OGL/SRD-based Dungeons & Dragons clone (or D&D itself, of course), but for anyone new, this book is going to rely a little bit too much on knowledge of gaming terminology. The system and everything is very simple, but if you’re not a gamer, you may get a little lost in terms like “exploding dice” and “damage reduction” that — while they are explained in the rules — sometimes seem impenetrable to newbies.
Characters get the standard OSR ability scores, with Wisdom traded out for Willpower and covering more of the magical side of things, and Intelligence picking up the perception side of things (as well as the usual smarts part), leaving you with Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Willpower, and Charisma. Rated in the usual 3-18 manner (rolled in order, mind you!), they translate to a simple tiered system of modifiers — ranging from -2 penalty to +2 bonus — and occasionally translating into a series of dice pools that align with the core mechanics of the game (ranging from super disadvantaged through super advantaged) for some rare special cases like Death Saving throws. A few Ability Scores influence certain types of rolls that target you, such as low Willpower providing bonus dice to spellcasters that target you with their magic.
There’s a table for previous job/career and two tables (A and B) for naming your character. And this is where things get whacko, because these things very much set the tone for the wild, 80’s cheesiness of the game’s setting.
With your ability scores rolled up, your previous real-world career figured out, and your whackadoodle Crimson Dragon Slayer name prepared, now it’s time to layer on the two big choices of character creation: Race and Class, which we’ll cover below. You also get to select an alignment (Good, Evil, or Neutral) though the game notes that the Dragon Master (the DM or Gamemaster) may track your “true” alignment since it’s a fluid thing. Finally, you pick up some weapons and armor (which mostly stay in the realm of fantasy but occasionally include sci-fi stuff like laser guns and power armor).
Your character’s race gives you a base amount of Hit Points to work with, as well as some ability score modifiers and a couple minor special abilities in some cases. There appears to be some measure of “balance” in the distribution of modifiers and abilities. For example, humans get a +2 to any two ability scores and a good amount of Hit Points, while other races mostly have fixed ability score modifiers, less initial Hit Points, and their special abilities often only amount to gaining advantage on a narrow set of dice rolls or are evocative in setting terms, such as the Infernal Elf ability to pick a patron Demon Lord.
- Infernal Elf
- Pixie Fairy Princess
- Hybrid (half-breed combination of any of the other races)
Your class gives you a Hit Die at each level that you roll and add to your race’s initial Hit Points to get your maximum hit points, and that you’ll also use for healing after resting. You get an additional Hit Die at every level.
Your class also provides you with weapon proficiencies that tell you which items you are skilled with (“proficiency” is simply a factor used in determining what tier of dice pool you are rolling), and some special abilities, all of which tend to be pretty obvious based on any other OSR game.
- Warrior has the best hit die (d10) and outside of being proficient with every weapon, also can mow through multiple enemies as long as they keep hitting.
- Wizards get the worst hit die (d6), proficiency in only the dagger and staff, and the ability to cast spells and practice alchemy. Starting at 5th level, though, they can create signature spells or magic items (once per level).
- The thief is proficient with a decent subset of weapons and a bunch of fairly open-ended but self-explanatory “skills” such as hiding and stealing and all the other stuff thieves usually get in OSR games. They can also backstab for double damage dice by foregoing an action for one round.
At 3rd level, choose a sub-class: Spell Scoundrel (wizard of 2 levels lower than your current level) or Assassin (gain a limited-use death strike attack).
- Rangers get proficiency with a bunch of weapons as well as wilderness-type skills, including foraging for healing herbs and tracking.
At 3rd level, choose a sub-class: Shaman (can shapeshift into animal forms) or Defender (can shield allies with defensive actions).
Levels in Crimson Dragon Slayer not only provide a pool of bonus dice usable throughout a day, but also occasionally unlock class abilities (as noted above) or translate to ultra-cool bonuses like the 10th level Dragon Slayer ability to throw a dice pool of 7d6 (A.K.A. God Mode).
But levels aren’t reached by totaling monster Experience Point rewards or some math-heavy construct, but instead are the result of in-game achievements. Everybody starts at Level 0 (“Noob”) because they just have to show up to do so, as the Experience Table shows us. Reaching Level 1 (and thus obtaining that first bonus die per day) simply requires going an adventure, doing a little exploration, and killing a humanoid or creature without aid. This sort of thing is obviously a little open-ended and prone to plenty of interpretation as to the details, but it’s strict enough that you kinda can’t get it wrong.
More importantly, it provides very clear incentives on what you do every game session. There’s not just “kill this or that,” but entire levels that are achieved simply by boasting of your abilities and partying with folks (and subsequently bedding a groupie). Much later levels require you to pick up henchmen, go find a cool mount to ride into battle, or build a stronghold. It’s like taking all the cool stuff that every OSR game suspects you’ll want to do and simply saying, “Do it!” That’s how you’ll rise in power, and it makes a lot of sense, while avoiding the problem of requiring some formula for monster XP.
Wizards cast spells by spending Willpower equal to the level of the spell (if it’s of a level equal to theirs), or three times the level of the spell if it’s of a higher level. Willpower refreshes with a long rest, and better yet for this sort of setting, wizards get the obligatory ability to suck Willpower out of people by cutting them and then touching them for a time. Yay, ritual sacrifice! I mean, that’s totally in tune with this sort of game’s conceits.
Critically failing on a spell roll spells some kind of disaster as a Demon Lord reaches out to the spellcaster and asks for some specific task to appease it, or else they lose their ability to cast spells. There’s a table of example tasks (6 of them, in case you feel like rolling a die!), and they involve your typical stuff like sacrificing people, uncovering the plans of do-gooders for your Demon Lord master, or copulating in order to create a magical (likely demon-tainted) child.
The list of spells is tight at about 3 spells for every level, including zero-level spells for the Noobs, but only a single 10th level spell. If you guessed that it was Wish, you’ve been paying attention to D&D for exactly the right amount of time. Some of the spell names evoke classic OSR stuff (Read Magic, Comprehend Languages) while others call back to video games and 1980’s tropes (Missile Command instead of magic missile, Taste the Rainbow instead of color spray). Most do what you’d think, and tend to look back to OD&D’s days of incredibly brief descriptions (also found in Swords & Wizardry), so there isn’t a lot of room for interpretation unless you get really nitpicky.
There are about 20-ish magic items that include your staples of D&D fiction — gauntlets of ogre strength and ice wand — as well as some fun additions. Krull‘s glaive makes an appearance (Glaive of Unrelenting Vengeance), as does the Slinky of Intermediate Peril, which will wrap around anyone foolish enough to go up or down the flight of steps upon which the slinky is set.
Icons and Adventures
There’s a brief section titled “Prominent Individuals of Thule,” and it presents a system of (1) choosing a prominent person, and (2) establishing a relationship (good, bad, or it’s complicated) with them. These iconic figures have evocative names that speak of various realms in Thule, and clearly are there to create some kind of tie to the setting…but they are not described any further, and don’t appear to factor into the included adventure beyond a couple of name drops, so…
It feels a lot like “Hey, the Icons thing from 13th Age is really cool, so let’s do something with that!” But it never got finished, or maybe relies on a campaign setting book that I haven’t heard about yet. On the bright side, you could easily just substitute six prominent NPCs or factions from whatever campaign setting you use instead and you’re off to a solid start.
There’s a quick note about how to convert monsters from other OSR games, which is so ridiculously easy and yet at the same time awesome that you’ll never run out of monsters. I mean, have you checked how many monsters are on the Swords & Wizardry SRD? You literally just rejigger Armor Class into damage reduction and maybe think twice about Hit Dice that go much above 10, and that’s it.
And now, the included adventure!
The Cavern of Carnage
The included adventure is called “The Cavern of Carnage” and takes no time to jump into things: it’s a straight-up presentation of:
- There’s a town nearby; we name it, and that’s it!
- Here’s a random encounter table for the dungeon; it’s astonishingly punishing if you linger in any one spot for very long.
- A slick looking map and almost 20 fully-described encounter locations with monster stats, traps, and treasure.
This doesn’t appear to be a “starting” adventure or come with any notes on what levels it’s intended for or how to “balance” anything…some encounters are against two 1-Hit Die monsters and others are against a single 10 Hit Die monster or 1d4 flying, laser shooting aliens. Some traps require saving throws of various sorts, and others just cause you to lose a finger, no save mentioned. It’s really all over the place. But so are the ideas contained within, in a good way!
A beholder-like creature named Pacmaw in a maze filled with ability score-modifying fruit, pretzels, and cupcakes. A callout to Doctor Who. A trapped cube of Rubix. A trio of mad alchemists. A caveman orgy in service to their dark god. A treasure chest with a ring in it and a finger-eating grub. Mentions of Saving Throws (I don’t recall these coming up earlier!) and a Charisma duel (it directly notes that this is a thing you’ll have to make up on the spot).
Overall, it’s what you’d expect of a whacky and wild OSR techno-fantasy adventure steeped in 1980’s references, and buried in the brief room descriptions and NPC notes are threads of a larger tapestry that hint at the assumed campaign setting of Thule, but there’s little attempt to make any sense of the larger whole. And there’s nothing particularly geared toward making the adventure sing, or easing any prep for the Dragon Master running it (handouts, separated statblocks, summaries of the background or context of the otherwise random setting snippets).
If zany is what you’re looking for, it’s a win. If running this thing is what you’re planning to do, you’ll have to put in all the requisite elbow grease that the OSR seems to pride itself on not helping you out with. (-1 point)
Pros & Cons
It needs more! I mean, the game is absolutely complete and playable as it is, but with 10 levels of play there’s just enough of a need for a bunch of sessions of play that it’s going to get stale with the meager assortment of monsters and magic items available, I’d think. Add to that the lack of setting content even in the face of some presented (and highly evocative) names of iconic characters in Thule, and you’ve got only the barest of bare bones presentations as to what this game is all about. Not that it’s hard for most OSR gamemasters to just make it all up, but I always gotta have enough examples to get started with exploring what the creators think the game should be all about, and I feel like this game is just shy of hitting the right amount of material in that regard. (-1 point.)
The Experience Level system being entirely made up of plainly stated achievements is fantastic, and can be easily re-written by the enterprising Dragon Master to fundamentally change the flow or style of the game. One might worry about balance issues since most modern games use XP rewards as a measure of a monster’s challenge rating, but old school games relied much more heavily on Hit Dice, and that’s present in Crimson Dragon Slayer‘s monsters, so we’re good there: just look at a monster’s HD and damage dice, compare it to the party’s level and how many hit points they have, and you can gauge roughly how tough a monster is. Simple. (+1 bonus point! It’s soooo good!)
And dude!!! That character sheet is dead sexy:
There’s no Table of Contents and no Index. At 40-ish pages, not having an index is hardly a problem in my eyes, but no TOC makes me cry a little on the inside. Couple that with the somewhat haphazard order of major concepts in the initial rules mechanics and character creation section of the book and you’ve now got me crying a little on the outside, too. But after wiping my tears aside, I can see the vast majority of this work is laid out pretty logically, and it’s short enough that you’ll get used to where stuff is after about 15 minutes of running the game, I’d imagine. (-2 points.)
The artwork is slick, totally fits with the content of the game, and even includes a moment or two that will remind you of the video game part of the setting’s backstory, which is nice, though I maybe wanted a little more of that. Still, it’s all relevant and of great quality, harkening back to the 1970’s and 1980’s pulp-style RPG art and the movies that obviously inspired the game’s tone, so that’s a big win.
Layout is clean, two columns, highly readable, and with several quote-like callouts and evocative little symbols baked into the pages to break up text and add to the fun prose.
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