Book Review: Castle Keeper’s Guide by Davis Chenault and Stephen Chenault from Troll Lord Games

In 1982, I started playing AD&D 1st Edition with a group of friends in junior high school. We would play many weekends over the next few years leading up to high school. And somewhere in that first year, I was given a copy of TSR’s Player’s Handbook. Not long after that I was given the Dungeon Master‘s Guide and my lifelong fascination with roleplaying
games began.

The DMG opened up my eyes in multiple ways. Not only would I begin constructing some of my own adventures, but I would gain a better understanding of how rules could be used in conjunction with many different kinds of source material to do amazing things with random tables and a bit of imagination. From that point on I developed a love for many elements I still dive into today – mythology, folk tales, religion, archeology, anthropology, philosophy, art, technology, and on and on.

What does this have to do with the Castle Keeper’s Guide for Castles & Crusades you might wonder? Well, the impact that original DMG had on me all those years ago is directly comparable to how I view the CKG. I’ve not played C&C, but if you substitute the term “Castle Keeper” for “Dungeon Master” or “Game Master” you end up with a solid guide to running games that may be tailored for C&C, but has some amazingly useful advice for GMs in any system.

First of all, let me just say this book is huge – weighing in at 291 pages as a PDF. And let’s chat about the price for a moment. Yes, I know it’s been discussed to death on other sites (Tenkar’s Tavern and JoeTheLawyer’s Wondrous Imaginings for example)… And I got my copy as a Featured Reviewer on RPGNow, so I can’t really speak to my out of pocket expense on this one. But the PDF is priced at $31.99 at RPGNow/DriveThruRPG. The hardcover version at the Troll Lord Games store is $39.99 and the perfect-bound softcover is $29.99. In an age where PDFs of some books of the same size are set to $5 or $10, $32 seems a bit much unless they priced it to encourage folks to buy the hardcover or softcover copy. But let’s let that slide.

Second, damn this is a lot of content in a single book and it’s divided into three parts, each of which is further subdivided into chapters with internal headers. The three main sections are – “The Character,” which focuses on PCs and NPCs; “Worlds of Adventure,” which covers an unbelievable amount of detail about worldbuilding; and “The Siege Engine,” which focuses on running games. Starting from character creation and ending with character death, the CKG has to be one of the most complete A-Z guide for running a campaign I’ve ever run across. I’ve run a lot of campaigns in a variety of systems over the last almost 30 years and nothing I’ve read covers this subject in nearly as much depth.

Content-wise, I don’t know how Davis Chenault, Stephen Chenault, with Casey Christofferson, James M. Ward, and Robert Doyel wrote it all. It’s a massive undertaking that must have taken months to compile and years to learn beforehand.

Before I dive into the broad parts of the book, I want to talk a little about the layout and something I found extremely distracting. I haven’t seen any other books from Troll Lord Games, but having a bold header repeating the part number and title on the left-hand pages, a bold header repeating the chapter number and title on the right-hand pages, and a bold header at the bottom of every page announcing the name of the book and the page number was more than a little overkill for me. By reducing the size of the text in the header and footer, I would have had the same information without it drawing my eye unnecessarily to the repeated elements on every page. But maybe it’s just me.

(c)2010 - Troll Lord Games

That said, if you’re a fan of artwork, there’s an incredible amount of black & white artwork throughout the book… everything from simple ink drawings to fully grayscale-shaded images. It truly showcases some amazing talent in a variety of styles and for a variety of purposes, so a huge thank you goes out to all of the artists who worked on the project – Peter “20 Dollar” Bradley, Larry Elmore, and Sarah “Dreamie” Walker.

So without more jibber jabber, let me dive into the meat and potatoes of this book – the content.

“Part One – The Character” covers just that – characters – but characters of a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and classes with a list of abilities and equipment that seems to go forever. My favorite chapters are “Chapter 3 – Expanding Equipment” and “Chapter 4 – Non-Player Characters,” so I’ll focus on those.

Have you ever wondered what’s in standard rations? According to page 52 of Chapter 3 of the CKG, normal or standard rations “generally consist of hard crackers with cheese placed in block form, all wrapped in wax paper. Such rations are difficult to chew, but are very hearty and filling.” What about better rations or the rations rich people might be able to afford? They seem to include a “mixture of dried meat and dried fruits in season.” I think I’ll stick to standard fare for now…

What about having definitions for a number of provision types I’ve never run across before? “Garum: a fermented fish sauce generally used to pickle (preserve) meats or vegetables, imbuing them with additional nutritional value, but it is also eaten on its own or added to a meal like a condiment.” Apparently it’s expensive though, so I wouldn’t get too used to it being in your provisions kit. Or how about “Malmsey: a very sweet, thick wine made of grapes and flower petals with a robust color and powerful aroma; it is generally considered the drink of the common class.” Go ahead, pour me another one bartender! [hic!]

It’s that sort of detail that just blows my mind. And guess what? This stuff isn’t made up! A quick Internet search for Garum or Malmsey turns up several definitions corroborating the definitions in the book. Not that I expect them to lie, but I’m always looking for ways to expand my vocabulary as I did while reading the 1st edition PHB and DMG for D&D – so I’m glad to see Troll Lord Games is keeping up that tradition.

And in Chapter 4 – “Non-Player Characters” – the CK/DM/GM gains a ton of insight into how to not only create useful and effective NPCs to use in-game, but how to run them. Simple advice such as the six guidelines offered early in the chapter – 1) Make detailed notes. 2) Give each NPC a quick personality. 3) Avoid name redundancy and always have a list of unique names handy. 4) Treat every NPC as a PC and give them the desire to stay alive. And 5) Make each NPC unique and true to his own desires and goals in life. There’s an extensive list of different NPC types a GM might need to create – from Acrobat to Zoographer – each with a solid definition with some hints as to their jobs.

Plus, there are guidelines for creating adherents, who exist in populated areas to do different jobs; henchmen, who accompany the party almost like full PCs; and hirelings, who act as servants to the PCs who hire them. So with three different categories of NPCs – GMs have a wide variety of roles they can play to fill in the world around the PCs. But there are also warnings on not making the NPCs the center of attention in the campaign, stealing the thunder of the very PCs they’re there to help. So there’s a fine line to walk as a GM between populating the world and taking over the adventuring duties.

“Part Two – Worlds of Adventure” is where I could get lost for days. I love world building and am always looking for more information, hints, or inspiration on how to make my worlds more real.

Chapter 5 kicks things off with defining the cosmology of a new world. Everything from the length of the day and year with astrological or astronomical markers to indicate seasons or direction to weathering the world with tectonic movement and climatic erosion. Speaking of climates, the book defines 10 different climate zones from the rain forest to alpine and everything in-between. It’s like you get a crash course in geology and the environment in a gaming book. It doesn’t stop there of course and moves through different ages to explore – from a fantasy setting to a stone age, bronze age, late medieval, and beyond.

Chapter 6 focuses on urban environments, offering advice on how to create consistent villages, towns, and cities with fully-formed
economies, governments, and laws… Here you get a smattering of anthropology and a discussion of different forms and structures of governance – from roving bands to democracies, dictatorships, and theocracies. I felt like I was auditing an intro-level archeology course in college as we went from governments to economies, social ranks, religion, art and architecture…

The section continues with chapters on war, travel by air and sea, and even monster ecology. Something tells me I’ll be pulling out the CKG the next time I try and develop a new setting. I may never actually finish tinkering with it!

And finally “Part Three – The Siege Engine” talks about the art of running a game. As a GM starting out, it’s definitely a daunting task. But GKG breaks it down into bite-sized chunks for easy consumption. What do you need? A Game Master (or Castle Keeper). A few players, from one player to as many as the CK wants to handle. And a place to play (like a kitchen table). Easy enough, right?

Chapter 14 doesn’t leave it there however. It goes into how to plot an adventure, what the goals for low-, mid-, or high-level adventures should be, a discussion of story arcs, hooks, and so on and so forth. The nice thing for new GMs is the list of sample adventure hooks, a discussion of the three major adventure types (overland, city, and dungeon), and how to balance challenges so they are interesting, but may still have the PCs alive at the end. Also included is a sample adventure – “Tipping Lances” – which can serve as an example of how to create one of your own.

Quite honestly there’s too much to cover in a blog post, but I’ll leave you with this thought… There are enough useful tips, tricks, and nuggets in this book that I might have to invest in a printed copy myself. Is it worth $32 for the PDF? I’m not sure. But the $29 softcover version is looking better and better!

If you’re a GM, new or old, and are looking for inspiration on how to make your games better – Troll Lord Games’ Castle Keeper’s Guide is an amazing resource to have in your corner. I don’t care if you run Castles & Crusades, Dungeons & Dragons, or some other system – there’s plenty in this nearly 300 page tome that will be handy to have on your shelf when you need it.

For more about Castles & Crusades, check out Troll Lord Games’ site for C&C. If you’re looking for the softbound or hardbound versions of the Castle Keeper’s Guide, you can find them at the Troll Lord Games’ online store. And if you’re looking for PDFs of any Castles & Crusades books, including the Castle Keeper’s Guide, check out RPGNow and DriveThruRPG!

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