A while back, I purchased the first edition of Crimson Blades: Crimson Blades Dark Fantasy RPG (core rulebook) and the Crimson Lords Dark Fantasy RPG Supplement. Together, they were a great ruleset, offering a lot of neat rules and ideas. That I found out that there was a new edition in the works, and Simon was nice enough to send me files with a sample of the newer rules and content. Although, largely unchanged in setting, save for a better map, rule-wise, it was way better that what came before. The rules are more consistent and easier to run. I love it!
Originally, the second edition was going to be in a box-set, much like Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, containing sheets, fold-up map, (possibly) dice and four rule booklets, each dedicated to a content of the game:
Crimson Blades: Characters & Combat
Crimson Scrolls: Sorcery & Summoning
Crimson Lords: Manors & Monsters
Crimson Lands: Legends & Locales
Through reasons beyond his control, he was unable to make that happen, so he published the game in a single book.
"For the honor of Greyskull!!"
(Sorry, it was that sword that made me say that)
The rules are simple and play like the old Basic/Expert D&D rules, but the game uses d6s exclusively. The game is tailored to play in the sort of fantasy seen with Conan of Cimmeria and Elric of Melniboné.
The biggest change between editions is how it handles dice rolls. In the first edition, what you need to roll was based on how you kick-down and hear though doors: roll a d6, with a set number (e.g. 4+; lower, the better) based on ability score or class ability (respectively). Some tasks (including saves) would be based on ability scores, and would not change through level progression, while other tasks would be based on level, with no consideration to high or low ability. Doing anything "untrained" would require a roll of 6 or more on a single die. The second edition streamline the possess by requiring only 4+ on a single die to succeed, high and low ability adjusting all rolls (from -1 to +2), and granting additional dice (thus increasing ones chances of rolling a successful die) through level progression. This also removes a number of ability-based checks like Strength Feat, Lore Roll, Notice Roll and the like.
One of the biggest hooks that got me into the game in the first place is how it handles Hit Dice. Unlike D&D, Hit Dice is not equal to one's level. Hit Dice in this game determines two things: Hit Point total and attacks per turn. Also unlike D&D, you do not keep a running tally of Hit Points per level. Every time you gain a new level, you re-roll your hit points. If you rolled higher that your old total, record the new score. If it equal to or less, than keep the old total. Although, in the new rules, you'll always get the minimum of one hit point per level, which makes hit point totals per level less stagnate. Hit Dice also features a bonus that is added to hit point rolls, but is only applicable to the current level and has no effect on combat rolls. Your Hit Dice is also the number of attack dice you can roll in a single turn. If you have two or more HD, you can use them on a single enemy, or split them between different opponents. You may convert extra dice for bonuses (for yourself or to aid an ally in combat), in order no hit tougher targets. Heavy weapons on the other hand use only one attack die, but the damage dice rolled is equal to your HD, and it is totaled! What that means is that instead of handling damage dice per attack, each effected by Strength and armor, heavy weapons can dish out more damage, with armor being less effective. Originally, defense was much like AC, where armor effected the opponent's ability to hit. Now, AC — called Defence Class (DC) — is based on DEX, shield-use and level bonuses. Armor now absorbs damage, making it possible to not take any damage.
The effects of this system, compared to D&D, is to prevent high level characters from becoming human pincushions, with the trade off being that high level characters are granted more killing power. If find this option to be way better than D&D, as characters who gain level can quickly cut through mobs and down powerful beasts, instead of being bloated meat-shield, who spend all day hacking at monsters.
Another neat rule is its simple encumbrance system. A thing to note, is that I tend to ignore encumbrance. I handle movement and what a character can carry in the laziest way possible. This "Thing" system is insanely simple, and reminds me of the Stone-based (units of 14 lbs.) encumbrance systems used in some of the newer retro-clones. In this game, weapons, armor and gear are rated as "Things." Most weapons, as well as the shield, count as a "Thing." Armor range for one to four "Things." The clothes on your back, some basic adventuring gear and pocket change all counts as only one Thing, but beyond this, what you are carrying is subject to the DM's discretion. In D&D, the thresholds to how much a character can carry is ether static (Basic/Expert), or requires a separate lists, based on STR score (Advanced). The amount of Things a character can carry are such a low numbers, that STR bonus adjusts them without complication.
Your class options in this game are: Barbarian, Griot, Fighter, Mountebank, Thief, Sorcerer, Wayfarer, and the inhuman Dendrelyssi race. This is not a game about characters turning into virtual demigods, so levels are caped at 10th level for all classes. Also, you cannot multi-class.
Fighters are your basic D&D Fighter, but with the ability to preform the kinds of stunts you'll see in Errol Flynn films. Barbarians are your typical berserkers with survival skills and a reliance on agility than heavy armor. Griot are African-styled Bards. Unlike the standard D&D Bard, a Griot can summon spirits to supplement their knowledge. They also have a lot of political clout. Wayfarers play out like D&D Monks, but are strange runaways with mystic abilities. Thieves are like their D&D equivalent, but are focused towards tomb-robbing and second-story work, and possesses no slight-of-hand ability. That ability goes to Mountebanks, who are like Thieves in many ways, but their skills are based on being con-artists. Where a Thief still uses Dexterity as a Prime Requisite, the Mountebank uses Charisma. Sorcerers are like D&D Magic-Users, but they can use meany types of weapons, and can even wear armor. They also benefit from the new rules governing the summoning of unearthly spirits, but not to the same degree as the Dendrelyssi. The Dendrelyssi are a race of white-skin dark elves. Much like D&D Elves, they are as skilled with a sword, as they are skilled with the mystic arts. Their ability to cast spells is weak compared to Sorcerers, but they are exceptional summoners.
Most of the classes have a special skills akin to Thieves' Abilities. They have between three to six skills. The player sets priorities to each skill. The priorities are set as Primary, Secondary and Teriary. From the start, Primary skills offers the best odds of success, while Teriary skills have the lowest odds. As characters progress in level, the odds improve more rapidly with Primary skills as they grant two dice and give more dice sooner, while Teriary skills start you with one die improve only slightly. Mountebanks and Thieves, who have six skills each, can set two skills for each priority. Wayfarers on the other hand, only have four skills, so they can only place one skill in Primary and in Secondary, with the remaining two in Teriary. Saving throws use the same rule. You have the same set of saves as in 3e D&D, with Fort, Ref and Will. Saves by default advance as Teriary skills, but a favorite save, as determine by class, is treated as a Primary skill.
There are other classes, but they are NPCs only. In this case, they are the Fleshcrafter, Merchant, Royal Redeemer and Witch. Fleshcrafters are Dendrelyssi who are skilled in torture and surgery. Merchants are expert hagglers and travelers. The Royal Redeemer are inquisitors who hunt down Dendrelyssi and their sympathizers. And the Witch has a limited cast spells ability (though her familiar), but can brew potions.
Much like Elric of Melniboné, the game is set to the "eternal balance of order and discord", and as such, you can choose to play as Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic. The book makes good note of each of their strengths and shortcomings, without making any side inherently good or evil. Its mostly about being conservative in your outlook (Lawful), or being recalcitrant (Chaotic).
The spell system in this game is the same as D&D, and does not offer much in new rules or ideas. The rules for summoning are wholly original. Whenever a class gains the ability to summon, the player must determine what kind of spirit the character can summon. The are: Elementals (air, earth, fire and water), Demons (of Combat, Desire, Knowledge, Pain, Possession, Protection and Travel) and Undead (corporeal and non-corporeal). Dendrelyssi and Sorcerers can choose what type of spirit they can summon — if they meet Intelligent requirements — then they must roll to see would type they are able to summon. Some classes, like the Griot, are limited to Undead or Demons of Knowledge, while Merchants can call on Demons of Travel. Intelligent and powerful summoners can even summon the lords of these spirits: Elementals Rules, Demon Lords, Liches or Vampires. Instead of the usual D&D-styled magic items, demons can be installed in objects or even people. Demons of Combat can be placed inside weapons to imbue great power to the welder. Demons of Protection can be placed in armor, doors, locks, chests and any other barriers. These items can be dangerous and fickle to use, but they can be awesomely game-braking in the right hands, and that is not a bad thing.
Beyond the core dice mechanics, another major change between edition is the complete removal of Experience Points. The reason for this is that the game is not a dungeon-crawl, nor a hack-n-slash. The goal of this game is to focus on adventure, exploration, mystery, intrigue, drama, politics or anything else that motivates the players beyond just mindless (and eventually boring) killing and looting. In fact, there are no Treasure Types, nor list of random treasure to be fund in this book. The system to rate monsters and encounters by level is still there to help the GM rate the difficulty of an encounter should it get bloody, but is no longer a critical component to the game. Based on how you look at it, this may be a good thing or a bad thing, but to me, it really cuts-down on the time it takes to do a post-game audit.
Weapons are categorized into Weapon Class (Vary Light, Light, Medium and Heavy), and further divided into melee, throwing and range, with example for each. Weapon Class are the same as weapons sizes in Basic D&D, but with different damage dice, or in the case of Heavy, the way you apply damage (although, Medium and Heavy weapons have the same d6 damage dice). Vary Light is basically an unarmed strike or throwing stars/darts (d2 damage die). Armor is categorized into Armor Class (Light, Medium-Light, Medium and Medium-Heavy and Heavy), with each class determining weight (in "Things"), Damage Reduction, Defence Class and penalty to physical actions that requires agility or stealth.
The game comes with a setting installed called The Crimson Lands. The world was once ruled by a race of amoral, degenerate albino-like elves called the Dendrelyssi, who treated other races, not notably humans, as slaves and lab rats. They are like D&D Drows with their cruel and wicked nature, but they are modeled on the appearance of Elric of Melniboné, with their pale skin, although there eyes are whited-out instead of being pink. They used demons and sorcery to maintain their vast empire. Long ago, their empire crumbed, humans rebelled — eventually forming their own nations — and the ageless Dendrelyssi are barren and slowly dying out. The Crimson Lands is made of around half a dozen small continents, surrounded by several large islands and archipelagos. There are around a dozen of human nations, with the Dendrelyssi largely contains to an small continent to the east. Language is mostly derivative of High Dendrelyssi: the language of Dendrelyssi royalty. As the lands are covered in the ruins of ancient Dendrelyssi cities and temples, there are a lot of strange mysteries and horrors lurking in the shadows, waiting to be uncovered by the greedy and foolish.
Braking from the standard quasi-medieval esthetic overused in most fantasy RPGs, Crimson Blades tries for a greater sense of orientalism that inspired pulp fantasy in the first place. The art chosen for the book (mostly public domain and stock art form Sine Normine Publishing) evokes an oriental esthetic throughout.Save for Goblins and Beastmen, you'll find a lack of Tolkienesque races. You will find some Lovecraftian, along with classical Greek creatures, as well as some iconic D&D monsters with a name-change in the monster list. Much like the 5e monster list, there are a good number of typical human NPC types (Bandits, Cultists, Townfolk, etc.), and vary few Orc-like humanoid adventure fodder. After a while in D&D, all those Goblinoids become the same, so having more human types available is refreshing in any RPG. The one predominant humanoid monster found in the Crimson Lands are the Beastmen. They include a list of minor mutations akin to the Hoards of Hades from the MMII, thus keeping them from looking all the same. In a way, they are like Broo form RuneQuest, but way primitive and beastly. Even with all the added killing-power of high-level character's, there are monsters that surpass the ability of a party of 10th level characters to slay. Like in any RPG, such monsters help keep players on their toes, and when used sparingly, is good to give the players a memorable encounter, without loosing all awe to ease or repetition.
The book is filled with DM advice that helps adventure go beyond the generic dungeon setting. You'll find find hooks and ideas for running adventures in a wide range of environments (cities, wilderness, seas, old ruins, etc.), and without throwing huge lists of random encounters (although, is a list, but its only takes up a single page). The primary advice is not to railroad the party into a pre-scripted story, as players would just derail such efforts, but to allow the players to determine where they want to go, and to figure out their own way out of a given situation. One of the fun things I enjoy doing, is reading the list of hooks and figuring what book or movie the ideas came form. Some people might find that unoriginal or lacking in creativity, but any DM worth their salt knows how that the best adventures takes liberally form great works of fiction, and the less the players know, the better! I do this a lot. Plus, anyone who casually pitches the idea to incorporate the premise of Alien (1979) in a fantasy game is a winner in my book, because, even with all the clues and foreshadowing, the players will still fall for it. Yes, if they figure it out off the bat, likely avoid it the situation (as they should). But in most cases, they would find out once they are neck-deep into the adventure, and when they do, they go into total panic mode! (Its good to be DM!)
So yeah, this game does a lot differently. The rules are simple enough to be altered easily. With some changes here are there, you can use the rules for nearly any setting. The setting by itself strays from the same old vanilla fantasy. Which I find strange and funny, as I need an escape like this, for my escapist hobby. Although, I have not had a chance to get the full feel of the game as I have not had the change to house-rule the hell out of the game. I don't always run a game "by the book", so I cant wait to see would I'll add, and what I'll drop. I'm like a grease-monkey with RPGs. To me, tweaking a game engine is high art and a way of life. I know there are rules form Conan (Mongoose Publishing) and 5e D&D that might work well with this game.
Recently, I discovered an old, iconic third-party D&D setting form Judges Guild called The Wilderlands. I quite enjoy the premises of the setting, but their are a number of minor issues I would change about it (and not the odd skin colors; as a Carcosaian fan, I don't mind that much at all). If I was to run a Wilderlands-inspired setting, I would strongly consider run it with this ruleset.