Crimson Dragon Slayer vs. Crimson Dragon Slayer

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You may be aware that Crimson Dragon Slayer is a gonzo, ’80s-inspired science-fantasy role-playing game first released in mid-2015 by Kort’thalis Publishing.  The original edition borrowed many elements of Dungeons and Dragons (the six attributes, hit points, armor class, saving throws, hit dice for monsters) and placed them in the service of a bizarre and comic premise: your characters are all people from the real world circa 1983, playing a cheesy video game called Crimson Dragon Slayer, when suddenly you are zapped through the screen, becoming adventurers in the video game’s fictional land of Thule.

In July of 2016, Kort’thalis released a streamlined version of the game called Crimson Dragon Slayer 1.11.  This edition has been variously billed as a ‘one-hour game,’ a ‘basic’ version to the ‘advanced’ original version, and a ‘system reference document’ for an eventual, full second edition of CDS.  The setting still appears to be the science-fantastic Thule, but the comic, ’80s pop-culture trappings are gone, replaced by a darker and more serious vibe of pseudo-Lovecraftian horror.  (Recall that Lovecraft’s horrors were, technically speaking, aliens, and that he could be considered to be writing a species of pulp science fiction.)

Here are the main mechanical differences between the two versions:

The six attributes from Dungeons and Dragons have been removed, along with their derived bonuses and penalties.  The game no longer uses polyhedral dice for damage and is played exclusively with six-sided dice.  The rules for domination (added benefits a player can choose to employ upon scoring a critical success) and dice pools (extra dice a player can expend during the game to improve chances of success) have been removed.  Finally, the magic system has been made free-form with an HP-drain mechanic, rather than list-based with a Willpower-drain mechanic.  These changes serve to bring the game more closely in line with Kort’thalis’ other core rulebooks: Alpha Blue and The Outer Presence.

I think that the changes are all more or less to the good, and have piqued my interest in a second edition of CDS.  I see a few welcome design principles at play in the revision:

Simple mechanics.  As far as possible, I want the mechanics of my game to get out of the way and let the characters live their lives.  I don’t really need my rules to model the damage taken from a fall based on height and the acceleration of mass.  As long as the rules can produce plausible outcomes in uncertain situations, I’m happy.  The leaner the better.

Words over stats. If I have simple and flexible rules at my disposal, then I can get more role-playing mileage out of the idea that a character is a ‘ruthless thief’ than out of the fact that he has a Dexterity of 14.  ‘Thief’ implies a certain skill-set as well as certain shortcomings, and ‘ruthless’ tells me that this character will do better when acting in certain ways rather than others.  Mechanically speaking, I will let this character’s player bounce many dice when trying to cut a man’s throat from behind, and bounce few dice when trying to stop an out-of-control wagon from running over some peasant children.  More words will give me a better sense of the character and what kind of dice should be rolled for him.

Avoid game-y bits.  By this I mean mechanics that encourage players to approach the game as a game, like chess, rather than as an immersive experience in which they are pretending to be their characters.  I’m a little torn about this one because the dominance and dice-pool mechanics in the original Crimson Dragon Slayer are fun in themselves.  It’s fun to budget and deploy your character’s bonus dice through the course of an adventure.  It’s fun to pick beneficial effects when you roll well for your character.  But these are both things that the player is doing, not the character.  To the extent that I’m focused on these admittedly fun game mechanics, I’m taken out of the fictional world and distracted from pretending to be Jorgen the ruthless thief, or whomever.  On balance, I prefer rules systems that determine what my character can do based solely on how I describe my character’s actions.  I don’t really need a bunch of handles and levers that let me muck about with the rules (hero points, etc.), even when pulling those levers is kind of amusing in itself.

Of course these are just my preferences.  Another player might prefer a mechanically detailed, heavily statted game with a wealth of systems for player control, and that’s fine too.  I personally appreciate the changes that have been made to Crimson Dragon Slayer, and I like the direction in which the game seems to be moving both thematically and mechanically.

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