Kevin Crawford’s old-school RPGs, which he puts out through his Sine Nomine Publishing small press, have been one of the most interesting pillars of the OSR scene for about a decade, ever since the release of Stars Without Number.
Rather than being based on a retro-clone of a specific D&D edition, Stars Without Number drew its system inspiration from a mixture of OD&D, B/X D&D, and Traveller. Its choice of D&D influences means that the system broadly resembles something like the sort of “rationalised” D&D system that a talented referee might have worked out at their home table from the OD&D rules set, had they taken the lighter approach of the Holmes-authored Basic Set or Moldvay and Cook’s B/X distillation of the rules instead of the crunchier approach taken by AD&D. (To a large extent both Advanced and Basic D&D represent different approaches to clarifying and tidying up OD&D.)
The Traveller input in Stars Without Number is most immediately obvious on the choice of setting and genre rather than the system side of things – both games are about crews of starfarers gadding about in a hard-ish SF universe – but there are also some important system aspects there. The inclusion of a Traveller-style skill system adds a welcome resolution mechanic to proceedings and makes the early D&D approach feel like it offers a bit more character definition outside of the immediate dungeoneering tasks of fighting, magic use, and exploration. In addition, the extensive use of random generators to help the referee generate material for the game is both a feature of Traveller and has become a hallmark of Kevin Crawford’s games.
In the subsequent decade, Crawford has managed to get this down to a fine routine, using Kickstarter to fund the artwork and other production costs for new games in a range of different settings and genres, which by and large use variants on the Stars Without Number approach both in terms of system construction and in terms of providing a robust set of content generation tools.
Wolves of God is one of those, based in a fantasy-tinged version of Saxon England as of the early 8th Century. England is a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who’ve come over from the Continent, the remnants of the Romano-British and other Celtic peoples have been pushed west into Wales and Cornwall or north beyond Northumberland, and the English have converted to Christianity at the behest of Rome. (The Romano-British were also Christians, but were not keen at sending missionaries into English territory.)
Ancient magic haunts the land, however. While the minsters around Christian cathedrals thrive, at the same time the old Roman towns and cities across the country are haunted by pagan things worshipped there in past times, bandits, sorcerers, and other malefactors using the hidden magical realms inside them as sanctuaries, and similar. That said, the treasures sat within are tempting prizes for any groups of adventurers willing to brave their depths…
Wolves of God is not 100% historically accurate, although Crawford does note that there’s a lot of gaps in our understanding of the era in question and source material is better used to form opinions rather than making strong assertions of fact. The book is written with the fun conceit that it’s a Dark Ages RPG written in the actual Dark Ages by an English chronicler, though Crawford never leans so hard into this schtick that it becomes difficult to follow what he is saying and there’s helpful marginal notes to summarise what the rules are saying.
In addition, in footnotes Crawford at point disagrees with the main text: for instance, his chronicler assumes an all-male party, but Crawford says that, although the society presented does have a strong sense of gender roles, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with remarkable, extraordinary women existing who do not follow that line and no reason to restrict players from playing those women if they wish to do so.
This goes some way to making me accept some of the more ahistorical aspects of the setting. Though there was a significant de-urbanisation associated with the rise of the English, prior to a reclamation of the cities in the era after the one Crawford is writing about here, Crawford seems to over-emphasise this (Winchester seems to have been in continuous use during the 6th and 7th Centuries, after all) – but that is in the service of setting up the abandoned towns as dungeon equivalents.
Likewise, the text emphasises the idea that the English displaced the Romano-British through bloodshed and warfare, but recent research suggests a more peaceful cultural mingling and absorption, which later chroniclers framed as a genocide for political ends of their own, but Crawford calls this out as the chronicler letting their own perspective shape the text. Much as the conceit of Pendragon is that you’re playing in history as imagined by Malory rather than history as it was, this is also a game set in an imagined version of history based on how historical writers thought of it, rather than necessarily being how it was.
At the same time, the game isn’t so ahistorical that its deep bench of referee tools can’t be used in other games. From Maelstrom Domesday to Dark Ages Cthulhu to Pendragon to Paladin, I can see all sorts of ways in which the generators in here, perhaps with a little light massaging here and there, can’t be used to nudge the imagination and help scenario design for a range of different games using inspiration from the Dark Ages or the early medieval period.
Why am I not doing this as a full Kickstopper article? Simply because Crawford now has this down to such a fine art that it’s pointless: Crawford is generally held to be among the most reliable (if not the most reliable) project creator in the RPG field on Kickstarter.
Put it this way: the predicted date for my reward tier was December 2020, I got my book in April 2020. Yes, that’s right: not even Covid-19 can slow Crawford’s roll. When you’re dealing with that level of reliability, there simply isn’t a story to tell here from the perspective of a Kickstopper article: you can pretty much treat backing a Kevin Crawford Kickstarter as a pre-order at this point.
I will, however, take a moment to praise Kevin’s customer service. The tier I backed at was for a PDF of the game, and also for a print-on-demand version of the game. (There’s tiers where you’d have to pay for the POD at-cost and cover postage yourself; this one had Kevin cover the POD cost and postage as part of the deal.)
When it came time to look at printing and shipping, Kevin came to the conclusion that it would actually make sense just to bump everyone on that their up to the next one, with a conventional print run for a nice faux-leather cover version of the book, and sent a message to everyone on my tier informing them that they’d be automatically boosted to that tier unless they wanted to opt out from that because they didn’t want to wait the extra weeks for the print job to happen (particularly given that it may take longer than normal due to social distancing requirements reducing the printers’ job capacity).
Kevin explained this as being “based on the economics”, which I suppose means that the economies of scale involved with doing the faux-leather editions meant that it’d actually be cheaper to do the paid-for PODs as those rather than taking the POD route for them and printing a smaller number of faux-leather books, but it is good of him to spot a way in which he could save himself money while giving backers more than what they paid for – and also good of him to be willing to let people opt for the POD anyway, as I did, since I figured that I would be down for a more significant wait for the faux-leather edition to be shipped to me from the US, whereas the POD would be done by DriveThruRPG’s UK printing partners. (The international shipping cost would likely eat into or outright eliminate the savings at Kevin’s end, come to think of it.) Kevin was quick to respond to my request and entirely understanding of my reasons, and in general it was a pleasure to interact with him.