Who says you need a book thick enough to stop a bullet to have a heavy simulationist game? Nights of the Crusades proves that it can be done in only 106 pages.
As may be inferred by the title, Nights of the Crusades is set in the Middle East during Medieval Times. It is a time of conflict and bigotry of all sorts from racism to sexism to religious intolerance. But the historical crusades are not the only inspiration for Nights of the Crusades. The famous 1001 Nights also plays a role in the game, with the mythical creatures and supernatural dangers from those stories added to the already dark themes of war and conquest. This is not the Disney version of these stories and the djinn in the game are malicious, massively powerful creatures that delight in tricking and tormenting mortals.
Obviously, given these source materials, Nights of the Crusades is a very dark game. Even if a player does not particularly want his character to dislike another character, whether player or game master controlled, there is a system of allegiances which insure that it is much easier to be aggressive against people of opposing allegiances than it is to assist them. Of course, whether or not the character acts on these hatreds is up to the player. The ranks of these allegiances can change so clever players can manipulate their ranks to make it easier or harder to attack or negotiate with a particular group depending on the groups the player wants his character to be allied with.
Another factor that helps make the game very dark and increases the simulationist aspect is the trauma system. After each day that a character engaged in, or observed combat, the player has to roll on a chart to determine if his character is permanently affected by what he has seen. The results of these rolls can be anything from addiction to phobias to an increase in the character’s hatred for a certain type of opponent. It attempts, rather effectively, to mirror the true effects of battle on a person’s mind and resembles post traumatic stress disorder. This is an aspect of battle that is rarely discussed in role-playing games. Most characters either never kill or are homicidal maniacs, depending on genre and in either case the amount of violence is hardly considered by the players. So a game that actually deals with the mental repercussions of fighting and killing other human beings is fairly unique. Additionally, there are a number of situations in which a character can become scarred or otherwise permanently disfigured or injured physically.
Characters do not have attributes in the classic sense. There is no measure of their strength or intelligence. Instead, they have four expertises, or general areas of skill. Each skill is associated with one or more of these expertises and each skill taken in an expertise increases it, making the character more effective in that particular realm of combat or social interaction. There are a lot of skills to take. A whole lot. This is necessary to give enough skills to give significant levels to the expertises. Beyond this purely numerical addition to the character, each skill also provides a specific advantage either in or out of combat. There are plenty of skills for any player to make a character just to his taste and reflecting any number of combat or negotiation styles.
The combat system can be run either abstractly or on a battle mat, but is extremely detailed in either case. There are stances, maneuvers, statuses and ongoing effects that can make a battle exceptionally complex and quite realistic. There is no swinging from the chandeliers here, only the brutal grind of battle and there is often the chance that a character will do nothing more than cower or flee.
The negotiation and social resolution mechanic can be just as complex. There are numerous “maneuvers” that players can engage in during a negotiation to manipulate the final results of the exchange.
Perhaps most influenced by the 1001 Nights source of inspiration, there is also a detailed storytelling mechanic within the game. In addition to inspiring players to creativity, this mechanic provides concrete mechanical rewards to the characters when used. The Pearls of Wisdom earned from these storytelling sessions can be used for anything from re-rolling a die, to adding wealth, to gaining an ability, depending upon how many are spent.
The actual game system comes rather late in the book and while it is not uncommon for the character creation section of a game to come before the mechanics, there are a lot of sets of sub-rules that come before the basic mechanics. These are relatively simple and characters attempting a feat that is equal to their ability need a roll of 5 or below on a d10 to succeed. For each point lower than the ability, the chance of succeeding increases by a point. For each point above, the chance of succeeding decreases by a point.
As simple as this die mechanic is, there is a very long game play example that includes investigation, negotiation, storytelling and combat, everything a group might need, to explain it all. While this is certainly useful and helps ensure all these varying game systems are clear, it does go on for a bit too long.
One of the things that Pearls of Wisdom can buy is a Fief. A symbol of the character’s power, a base of operations and a source of wealth, the fief adds a hint of domain management to the game and helps represent the character’s advancement in society and influence over the world. This system is also relatively simple, but adds a nice touch to the game.
There is an NPC section which provides characters and a handful of animals/monsters for the game master to use to populate his stories. This section is rather short and there is no obvious organization to it, but it requires very little to create an opponent in the game so it would be fairly easy for a game master to create any challenges needed.
The book ends with a short adventure which captures the horrific nature of the game perfectly. It is no cosmic horror or fearsome monster that threatens the characters but a combination of fate, nature and human needs and failings that force the players into horrible decisions.
Nights of the Crusades is an exceptionally gritty, surprisingly detailed game system which explores a dark time in the history of the world. Groups who like high flying action or simple stories of good and evil will be disappointed by the game, but those who prefer investigating the infinite shades of gray of morality in more realistic stories will find just what they want in this game.