Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 78

1. The Army of the Light kills a basilisk and brings a petrified friend back home.
2. An examination of the joys and deep challenges of trying to use the Castles & Crusades Mystical Companions book to expand player companion/pet/familiar options.

Balthazar, Elf (Mongrelman) Wizard 7 of Arcanus
, Human Cleric 5 of Charon
Gnoosh, Gnome Rogue 7/Illusionist 6 of Baravar Cloakshadow
Martin, Human Rogue 7 of Bacchus
Astrid, Human Skald 3 of Hel
Noro, Human Warrior Priest 3 of Hyperion
Remi, Gnome Rogue 5/Illusionist 4 of Hermes
Tiberius, Human Paladin 2 of St. Ingrid
Jasper, Dwarf Fighter 3/Cleric 3 of Dumathoin
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian

Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
Last session we ended on a cliffhanger as Balthazar was thrown into a room by a revolving door, met the gaze of a basilisk, failed his save, and turned to stone. This session began with careful planning, and then Arthur entered the basilisk room through the revolving door, but it got stuck when it struck the stone Balthazar. Arthur responded – while avoiding the gaze of the basilisk – to place his portable hole over the head Balthazar and then with a push his stone friend fell into it and Arthur could store him away.

During this time the other members of the group entered the room, and even when they took a -4 to hit it to avoid the creature’s gaze, they swiftly killed it. After looting its tomb, they wanted to get back to Ironguard Motte, count their treasure, and put Balthazar in storage/on display until they find a way to reverse his petrification. After more than two full sessions on this adventure, there was a lot of XP to distribute, and several characters leveled up. At this point the remainder of our game session turned to upgrading characters.

Castles & Crusades book Mystical Companions
This takes us to Mystical Companions. Have you ever wanted a special companion, pet, or familiar for your character that is unique to your character class? Well, then, this is probably the best book I’ve found to meet that need with all its imaginative options. Ever since my players have gotten a hold of this book there have been two things they have consistently said: “that is so cool!” and “what does that mean?”

There is an abundance of amazingly fresh ideas in this book, but they are sometimes cancelled out by all the page turning you have to do to find and cross-reference everything. Additionally, this book was previously a D&D 3E book called the Book of Familiars, and a substantial amount of 3E terminology remains within its covers and it is confusing a lot of my players who never played that edition (and for the few that do know 3E, they want to know how it applies to C&C). Using this book requires extra time to prepare and plan what companion your character wants to acquire, how they are going to do it, and what path they want that companion to take over their level advancement as it grows with the character. The problem is that with all the page-turning and leftover 3E terminology, references to 3E monsters that we are frequently told are to be found in the Monsters & Treasure book (but are not), this becomes a genuine headache and exercise in frustration. This may be the best companion book I’ve come across for an RPG, but it is also probably the most poorly executed.

Examples of the Good Parts:
The Variety of Options for Character Classes. An Illusionist, for example, can summon animistic spirits (classic familiars from myth and literature), automatons (non-sentient mechanical objects), fetish familiars (a physical receptacle that serves as a container for a spirit), and mercurial familiars (intelligent spirits that only want to satisfy their own desires). Each of these options takes up several pages with charts and details showing the paths a character can make. Multiple players could make the same choice and yet take them in very different directions. The options here are amazing!

And every single character class has an option available to it (well, not every character class, the knight, for example, is missing an entry in this book, but since this book began as a 3E product, and 3E didn’t have a knight class, they didn’t bother to add it to this book. That is a little annoying, but it is easy enough to just have the player use options from the paladin or fighter chapters, but as we will see, the little bit of extra work here and there that the player and GM have to do builds up over time).

The Problems:
Mixed Messages from the Rules. My players and I get different messages depending on what we are reading. One of the things I like about C&C is that there is a lot of openness to the system, there are not too many rules telling you how to do something, they leave a lot up to each GM and their players to creatively work things out. But in this case that doesn’t really work. That may be in part because of this book previous existence as a 3E book and 3E was a system that tried to have an answer for every question and instead usually gave you a question for every answer (that is why many of us got bogged down and lost in the details of the 3E rules-heavy system). I think there needed to be more paring down when this book was brought into C&C, and I don’t think that was done. There are 8 authors listed for this book. That might explain why the book has (i) so many unique approaches to companions, as well (ii) why the book is all over the place and sometimes lacks a consistent unity. An editor could’ve helped in this regard.

Editing. I mentioned the illusionist options above. The header for the illusionist chapter begins with “The Illusionist’s Familiar,” but a few pages later the header changes to “The Wizard’s Familiar” (the Wizard chapter follows the Illusionist chapter). Even though we are now all familiar with this glaring error, it still gets us when we are paging through the book to look something up and we can’t rely on the header to let us know where we are.

Then there are the references to creatures and beasts that don’t exist in C&C. Believe it or not bats don’t appear in the C&C Monsters & Treasure (M&T) or any other C&C book I’ve looked at. As you can imagine, bats are mentioned constantly as a companion that someone can procure, it is stated numerous times that “these creatures can be found in Monsters and Treasure” or in “Appendix A.” They appear in neither. I have a player who has a bat familiar, but I used the stats from the Adventures Dark and Deep Bestiary (which has bat entries for every kind of bat you could ever need).

Dire wolves. They are also referenced constantly as being in either Monsters & Treasure or Appendix A, but they are a 3E monster and don’t appear in M&T or Appendix A. Even though it is easy enough to just replace a dire wolf with a worg, or something similar that does appear in M&T, the names of creatures that don’t exist in C&C products, or are a reference to a different game system, should’ve been found in editing and removed or altered. These errors are obvious, and it shouldn’t be up to the GM and the players to wade through these unnecessary issues and do all this extra work themselves. The book should help you, not put-up roadblocks.

The problem might be that there are 6 editors listed for this book. This probably doesn’t help with the hit-and-miss editing. Troll Lord Games is notorious for its poor editing and that really stands out in this book. They really need to stop asking well-meaning and well-intentioned friends who will look over their books after work and on weekends and hire professional editors that are being paid to do specific editorial jobs (i.e., developmental editing, content editing, copy editing, and mechanical editing).

I do get enjoyment as a GM in grabbing monsters from any edition of D&D and throwing them in my game to keep my players on their toes. But this book is supposed to assist players in planning a cool companion for their specific C&C characters to grow with them over time. The information they need should be at their fingertips, or else the information should be easily accessible by their GM in other C&C products.

And yet every single game session when someone brings up a question about a companion option or a type of 3E phrasing that is used, we typically spend 20 minutes pouring through books trying to find the answer or the best way to make a ruling that is happy for everyone involved. And most frustratingly, when we do arrive at a ruling that satisfies those involved, another question usually appears the following week and we must go back to page turning and try to remember what we decided and why. There was one point in my game last night where everyone who had a copy of Mystical Companions (I think it was four players) had their copy opened and we had open debate as to what was meant by the phrasing and the monsters being referenced. Meanwhile, another player got up and grabbed my 1E Monster Manual to find more information that might help us in making a ruling, while I am trying to find other means to find the best C&C alternative for a dire wolf, since all the players involved had different interpretations in their mind based on their previous gaming experience. It was a muddled mess. We must’ve spent close to an hour wading through various issues related to the Mystical Companions book. When everyone at your game table from their late teens to their early 50s who have played everything from B/X to Pathfinder and 5E are unanimously and consistently from week to week confused by the contents and presentation of a book, it needs work.

I so badly want to continue using this book, but it needs to be fixed up, and since I can’t predict what my current or future players are going to choose and how they will want to progress with a companion (due to the variety of options), I say to myself I will just keep things on a case-by-case basis. Yet, I need to do something to clear up, clarify, and simplify this book. I have never owned an RPG book that has been so useful and overflowing with options for expanding the choices for my players and yet cause such a staggering headache trying to work through the editing errors, and references to things from the first version of the book that don’t exist in the current game that the book is supposedly made to support.

So, there you have it. I think this book has more options and ideas for expanding companions, pets, and familiars than any other I am aware of, and yet the references and terminology from other game systems, internal consistency, cross-referencing, and editing errors is going to wear you down.