The year is 1983. After a long week working at your mundane job, you return home looking forward to the new Commodore 64 roleplaying game – Crimson Dragon Slayer. While psychedelic progressive new wave metal tunes play on your boom box, you design the most perfectly awesome character – a powerful hero, a courageous warrior, and seducer of the opposite sex.
But once you start playing, Crimson Dragon Slayer reveals its true nature – it is no mere C64 game, but a dimensional portal to Thule! In ancient times, Thule saw android uprisings, mutant gangs, and alien colonizations. Now humans, elves, dwarves, and even stranger beings live in fear of endless Crimson Dragon hordes and the evil sorcerer Valkon. The only way to save this world – and perhaps return home – is to adventure across Thule’s dungeons, caverns, cities, and wild places until you become a worthy suitor to the Valeecian Queen. But if you reach that point, will you even want to return home?
In case it wasn’t clear, Crimson Dragon Slayer is not a game that takes itself very seriously. It’s a full-blown parody of 1980s pop culture – from RPGs and beyond – presented in the form of a 40-page tabletop game. Its setting combines just about everything from the decade, pitting your D&D-style characters against robots, gun-toting mutants, perhaps even a Lovecraftian Pac-Man. What’s more, the setting is simple while bearing just enough similarity to old-school RPGs to import non-Crimson supplements.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. The book’s presentation is very barebones when it comes to making a full campaign, and it has organization problems that could’ve been avoided with a little refinement. But the genuine enthusiasm and creativity behind Crimson Dragon Slayer makes it very appealing, and imaginative RPG groups can find enough here for several evenings’ entertainment.
If Crimson Dragon Slayer has one virtue, it’s that everything must be awesome. Every aspect of its rules is streamlined to allow for over-the-top action at the very moment of creation. Warriors attack repeatedly every round until they miss. Wizards can forget about “spells-per-day” and cast any spell immediately, using their Willpower as a mana pool. And that’s not even getting into custom hybrid races – our group ended up with a Halfling Cyborg Thief with limited spellcasting abilities.
The mechanics fully support these ridiculous play-styles, tossing aside quaint conventions like “realism”. Death saving throws have a chance of completely refilling your health. Making cheesy one-liners or 80s references will provide you extra dice. Critical successes can be stacked to create insanely powerful results. Combined, every Crimson Dragon Slayer encounter is completely amazing and utterly unbelievable, much like the 1980s genre stories that inspired it..
Of course, the awkward elements of 80s genre fiction are present as well. The biggest example are bonus dice pools, which can only be refreshed via sexual gratification with (at least) one other character. That means the introductory adventure – and ideally any dungeon created afterwards – has ample numbers of buxom babes or strapping slabs of man-meat who can be rescued and propositioned. It’s a feature that’s completely authentic to the 80s feel, but could be incredibly awkward depending on your group makeup. Before using this feature, you should make sure everyone at the table can be mature about it beforehand – or at least immature enough for everyone to giggle equally.
That said, the mechanic is vague enough that it can easily be turned on its head. In my own game, almost every NPC was treated as a potential sexual partner – including the dread god K’tulu, much to our horror and amazement. It’s also easy to populate dungeons with male “distress” NPCs, or avoid rescue encounters altogether and meet other adventurers as equals. Some groups may opt to avoid this system, but handled correctly it can be one of Crimson Dragon Slayer‘s most comedic, memorable features.
Character creation follows the usual old-school gaming formula of rolling attributes, choosing a race, choosing a class, and tallying your stats. It’s all pretty standard, but Crimson Dragon Slayer has a few extra touches that really stand out. You can reach beyond the usual D&D races to have robots, crystallines, and pixie fairy princesses. You can even create hybrid races using any two on the list, creating new powerful beings with the strengths and weaknesses of each. But however unique your character may be, you’re still the ordinary human from 1983 inside – you carry starting items based on your former profession, and get extra dice for including your background in roleplay. That gives you a huge range of characters to build, and fully explains away why the Good-aligned Warriors aren’t bothering to fight the Evil Wizards in your party – everyone’s technically friends in the meta-world after all.
Once your character is created, the action is straightforward. Anytime a player attempts an action, the GM determines whether they have an advantage, disadvantage, or average chance of succeeding. The easiest way to figure this out is using ability modifiers, which are ranked as “pathetic”, “below average”, “above average”, and “extraordinary” instead of numbers. From there, you increase or lower the advantage based on current circumstances. If you’re fighting a high-level enemy with a weapon you aren’t proficient in, you’re disadvantaged. If you have special equipment and are receiving assistance from an NPC, you’re advantaged. You can boost your action further through cheesy 80s references, magic, or any number of bonus dice granted for your character’s level. Once all considerations all accounted for, you roll a d6 dice pool based on the total advantage level and count the highest result.
On the one hand, this is a barebones system that’s wide-open to interpretation thanks to the lack of numbers to lock down an objective action. But in practice, it’s an incredibly fluid and easy way to judge complex actions, adding and dropping dice with ease. It fully supports getting players into the action right away without fussing over extensive tables or math.
The downside is that Crimson Dragon Slayer is very poorly organized, which can get in the way of letting you use what few rules it has. Despite only having about 30 pages of system material, the content is scattered haphazardly across the book in ways that leaves you flipping back and forth to make sure you didn’t miss anything. The Experience Points table, for example, doesn’t mention the rules for levelling up. That information was 10 pages earlier, dispersed across rules for individual classes. And if you missed the lone paragraph about rolling Hit Dice for each level – which I had right up until the first session – your character wouldn’t earn any extra health for the entire campaign.
Why not put this information on the character sheet? Well, that’s part of the problem – Crimson Dragon Slayer doesn’t have an official character sheet. It’s so old-school that you’re expected to write everything down on a blank piece of paper.That’s not so bad – character creation is a speedy process anyway, and you can write down relevant rules along the way to avoid the above problems. But it also means the player is entirely responsible for keeping everything organized and maintaining their always-changing statistics, which could’ve been avoided if a character sheet did the heavy lifting. After all, there’s a reason that convention was dropped after the 70s.
Details like a lack of character sheet means Crimson Dragon Slayer doesn’t always feel like a complete game – more like it’s a minigame or prototype awaiting more content. Outside of the introductory adventure, the onus is entirely on the Game Master to create new material, from adventure concepts, to dungeons, to monsters. It’s possible to import content from other OSR games, but the 80s setting includes androids, aliens, post-apocalyptic mutants, and more – creatures that can be challenging to adapt on the fly. The biggest omission is the Crimson Dragons themselves – killing one is the only way to reach Level 10, but the game never bothers to give you an example for context. Experienced game masters will probably have lots of ideas for adventures, but others may find themselves in a creative rut – especially if they’re not intimately familiar with how ridiculous the 80s were.
At the same time, that’s part of the appeal. Crimson Dragon Slayer is about diving in and dealing with the consequences, not reading nitty gritty rules. Even the experience table follows this philosophy. You never earn experience from fighting monsters, but automatically level upon completing appropriate benchmarks – be it obtaining treasure, carousing after a victory, or raising an army. It’s impossible to grind your way to victory in Thule – you succeed or you fail. And if that means the players end up ridiculously overpowered or constantly rolling death saves, so be it. Let Crom sort them out.
Bottom Line: Crimson Dragon Slayer is an impressively solid – if tongue in cheek – OSR game system about 1980s fantasy roleplaying. The dice rolling system is easy-to-grasp while covering a wide range of actions, and the characters you generate might be the most hilariously memorable of any campaign. Sadly, a lack of campaign resources and various organizational problems prevent it from feeling like a complete RPG, but imaginative players will be having too much fun to care.
Recommendation: If you love the 1980s – warts and all – or just want a new take on old-school games, Crimson Dragon Slayer shouldn’t disappoint.[rating=3.5]