This massive hardcover clocks in at 155 pages, 151 if you take away editorial, ToC, etc. This review is based on the hardcover of the book, namely the Swimsuit Edition 2014, which comes with a nice wrap-around variant cover. This book was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print version of this book.
All righty, so first things first: What is Xcrawl? If you haven’t seen this unique setting/playstyle, then let me enlighten you: On one hand, the proceedings take place in an allotopia, an alternate world akin to ours, though it also borrows from near-future/cyberpunk as well as fantasy. What do I mean by this? Well, the setting itself is one wherein dwarves, elves etc. all live with us on the planet, and one where magic is real. The focus, for the purpose of this book, lies on the United States, or rather, the North America Empire, the analogue within the realms of Xcrawl. The world itself is not one suffused with a plethora of high-tech, but the cyberpunk influences can be seen in the tropes: The gulf between poor and rich has widened even further and the chances to rise on the social ladder are diminishing constantly. The empire is rotten and corrupt to the core – and it is in this dreary, somewhat dystopian vision, that Xcrawl takes place.
If the world itself sounds drab in its construction, then that is by design: You see, much like in movies like “Running Man” and similar cult classics, the empire has taken at least the “Circenses” of “panem et circenses” rather seriously: Thanks to modern technology and magic, the media have discovered perhaps the ultimate adrenaline kick, the piece of color and excitement in a grey daily life, a bloodsport at once complex and simple: Dungeoncrawling, as a spectator sport! Xcrawl has become so popular, it is a singular force, a means to escape ones’ limitations – whether if you’re an elf rebelling against your house, a half.orc trying to make it out of poverty, a halfling who has broken with organized crime – the Xcrawl environment provides the means to transcend the social strata in an increasingly rigid environment.
Now, I have touched upon races – the classic core races are all covered, though it should be noted that the book reprints these and expands the races slightly: Each race gets bonus skills: These do not allow the character to transcend max ranks, but they represent skills from previous, non-X-crawl environments. These are ranks and as such, they are gained over the levels – this may sound weird at first, but it should be noted that, while rules cover lower levels as well, the suggested starting level for Xcrawls is 3rd. It should be noted that all of the races receive interesting angles and that compatibility to mainstream PFRPG is retained throughout the write-up for the races and the respective races receive some sensible and interesting background information.
Now, while absolutely nothing prevents you from using the content herein with all the PFRPG-classes out there, the main crunch-meat of the book would be no less than 6 base classes that allow you to basically play the game with just this book. If you’re curious, yes, these are kinda in line with the traditional roles. Training between levels can be used as an alternate rule and as a thematic leitmotif, Greco-Roman pantheon and aesthetics can be found. So let us take a look at the classes, shall we? Due to the density of the classes and the sheer ground to cover, I will remain relatively brief.
All right, the first class would be the athlete, who gains 3/4 BAB-progression, good Fort- and Ref-saves, fast movement progression from +5 ft. to +40 ft., proficiency with simple weapons, light armor and shields (except tower shields) and don’t treat sport-equipment as improvised weaponry. They are grappling specialists and gain Improved Grapple from the get-go, with SERIOUS damage-scaling for grappling – from 1d8 to 9d8 base damage. Somewhat strange: Small athletes only get d4s, which is a pretty serious downgrade – why go two dice-steps here, when Small characters already are handicapped regarding grappling. The athletes also receive the training ability – basically, they get a floating bonus to a physical attribute score – this scales to up to +8 and may be freely divided among the physical attributes, representing the training regimes of the athlete and allowing for some preparation to specific events – whether it’s becoming more agile, improving damage output – you get the idea. Second level and every even level thereafter yield so-called special abilities. Quite a few of these tie into the aforementioned training and have requirements, being only available for the athlete while the sufficient training bonus is invested. The respective abilities do sport prerequisites in some cases, and, while they generally are precisely formatted, there are instances of italicizations that have not been perfectly implemented…but that as a cosmetic aside.
Several of the abilities obviously tie in with grappling here, while e.g. pole vaulting and the like can be found, there also are leaping attacks and the like. The rules-language, for the most part, is rather precise, but at the same time, we can find some issues in the finer details of rules aesthetics, like a selection of untyped bonuses that are typed in comparable abilities. Similarly, an attack that should be tied to CMD being tied to Fort-saves. At higher levels, the class does gain the option to temporarily ignore a series of conditions and even gains scaling immunities.
The other classes include the blaster, who gains d6 HD, 1/2 BAB-progression, good Will-saves, 4 + Int skills per level and proficiency with simple weapons and another light melee weapon, which gains “an attack bonus” that scales with the level – it’s small issues with the rules-language like this that can be seen The blaster also is an arcane spellcaster, who gains spellslots according to a unique table, which goes up to 8th level. The governing attribute is Charisma, though the spellcasting is prepared and based on a spellbook. The unique part of the class would be that it has the option to convert spells into blasts of raw eldritch might, dealing 2d6 untyped damage per spell level. As a minor hiccup, while the ability does note the ability is supernatural, the header lacks the (Su) that should be here. They also get an ability to make analyzing their spells harder to understand and thus counter. The class once against sports a selection of techniques to modify the respective blasts etc. – with advanced (11th) and supreme techniques (20th) being unlocked at later levels. The untyped damage is pretty nasty, and so is the significant spell arsenal – the class is the one in the arsenal that hasn’t aged well – the kineticist or the ethermancer represent better, more balanced options for the blaster trope.
The third class would be the brawler, the fighter-equivalent, who gets Improved Unarmed Combat at 1st level, full BAB-progression, d10 HD, 2 + Int skills per level, a bonus feat at 1st level and every even level thereafter as well as proficiency with all simple and martial weapons, all armors and shields (except tower shields) and no firearm proficiency. They gaina combat pool equal to 2 points +1 for every 2 levels thereafter, which can each round be assigned to attack rolls, weapon damage rolls, AC, and Will-saves “Willpower saves” here) – this is a simple, but fun ability. Speaking of minor hiccups – the Knowledge (Xcrawl)-skill in the class skills here lacks the (Int) that’s supposed to be after it – again, cosmetic, but there are quite a few glitches like this.
The jammer is proficient with simple weapons, as well as light and medium armor, shields and a weapon of their choice as well as 3/4 BAB-progression, 6 + Int skills per level and good Ref- and Will-save progression. The jammer is, among all the classes here, by far my favorite class: Think of these guys as artists/rock/pop-stars with a variety of combat music and the option to follow these up with somewhat sneak attack-y bonus damage assaults against the affected individuals. Add to that a ki pool governed by Charisma for better defense and we get an interesting, fun class – I honestly wished we got a lot more options for this guy!!
The messenger gets d8 HD, 2 + Int skills per level, 3/4 BAB-progression as well as good Fort- and Will-saves, proficiency with the deity’s favored weapon, simple weapons, all armors and shields (except tower shields) and 2 domains and prepared spellcasting based on Wisdom. Messengers are directly descendant from the divine and their blood can act as a holy symbol. Basically, this represents a variant cleric who does not gain channel energy and instead gets an array of abilities at 1st, 9th and 13th level. This would btw. be as good a place as any to note that formatting of attributes is inconsistent – I noticed quite a lot of lower case attributes like “wisdom” and the book is inconsistent in whether it uses the full-length attributes or the three-letter abbreviations. The class write up also features a table of domains etc. for the Olympian pantheon, some of which have abilities that made me seriously question how they got past playtesting. The ability “On my signal”, in the Strategy domain, for example, allows for the no-action (not even an immediate action!!) activation at the start of a combat round: Wisdom bonus + 1/2 class level allies can act on the highest initiative count among the allies (not sure if the “ally” has to be part of the chosen group). I assume that the action is instead of the action usually available at this round. Still, this allows for the old rocket-tag game; bonuses to initiative are very potent and this collective boost, usable 3 + Wisdom modifier times per day, can provide devastating initial assaults.
The final class herein would be the specialist, who gains d8 HD, 8 + Int skills per level, 1/2 sneak attack progression, 3/4 BAB-progression, good Ref-saves, proficiency with simple weapons and 3 martial weapons as well as light armor. They have special abilities, which are akin to talents, separated in two tiers, with the second tier unlocked at 10th level. Okay rogue-variant.
The book also features new skills, obviously: Drive, Grandstanding and Tactics – two are self-explanatory, but grandstanding takes the whole spectator-sport aspect into account – the crowd is important, after all! Where there are so many new classes, there obviously also will be a ton of new feats tying into the new options – expansions for the combat pool etc. – you get the idea. They also gain fame feats over the levels, which tie into the cool narrative framework – and yes, being Face or Heel can be found here! These feats are rather interesting and often feature fun concepts!
NPC-classes and a massive array of equipment, from skinmesh, electroshock weapons and the like all can be found – including real estate and the like, so yeah, the equipment section is really neat. However, as much as I’m not a big fan of the majority of the class section, I do love the Mojo pool: You can NEVER ask for mojo pools – only have them assigned to you by your teammates and an Xcrawl begins with 1d6 + the highest Charisma modifier in the pool; if only one character remains standing, he gets 3 mojo: minimum mojo is 0, maximum is 12: Natural 20s in combat net bonuses, rooms won and exceptional actions all yield mojo, but botches, party infighting and disqualifications decrease the pool. Rolls involving mojo that score natural 1s or 20s can yield escalated benefits or penalties. This small system is brilliant: It promotes teamplay, racks up the tension and makes the game cooler – big, big plus. Fame is btw. tracked from 1 to 20, representing the status of the character – temporary and permanent fame, modifiers and instant recognition all are covered in a well-crafted, intriguing chapter that also allows you to use fame to purchase e.g. access to crawls, manipulate media, etc. – there are a variety of ways to use these points to further the campaign and progress of the team.
The GMing of Xcrawl is depicted in an in-depth chapter as well: First of all, you make DJs – Dungeon jockeys, the guys and gals in charge of the dungeons, stars themselves and larger than life entities – and no, these should not be GM-stand-ins – and obviously, there are various types of campaigns: You can just focus on the Xcrawls themselves, but you can similarly run full Xcrawl campaigns, including the frame narratives, rises to fame, advertisement deals etc. – and from military to the different leagues, there is a grand variety of themes you can draw on. The goals of the Xcrawl and its highlight-reel-like structure, advertisements breaks, DJ-commentary – you can enter some serious 4th wall type of fun. Similarly, the constructed, artificial nature of the Xcrawls mean that you can go full-blown grotesque and absurd – the dungeon doesn’t have to make any sense and neither do the monsters – it’s unmitigated rule of cool dungeon-design, justified and supported by the very framework. This may sound weird, but particularly for one-shots, convention games or as a change of pace, these Xcrawls make for ridiculously fun, amazing scenarios – there is a reason I’ve been loving Xcrawl for so long.
The details of how the Xcrawl works, from non-combative badges (noncoms) to nogo doors, refs and PCs surrendering, breakrooms and the like are all included in the discussion of the Xcrawl games; advice on designing Xcrawls, the official imperial rules of the setting, structures of the time leading up to the crawl and a codified reward system make sense. Similarly, magic items and tools can be regulated for the crawl – depending on the Xcrawl, you have the options to custom-rig what works and what doesn’t. Stone-Age theme? No problem. Equipment-sponsorship deals, contracts and salaries, rules for personal appearances – the book is incredibly detailed in a variety of way and sports some really fine details.
The book also contains a massive index and a proper character sheet for Xcrawl characters.
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are very good. On a rules-language level, the book doesn’t hold up to this quality, though: Rules-formatting is inconsistent in a variety of ways – while their integrity is generally there, I still consider this part to be very much the weakest aspect of the book – a strict rules-developer giving this a pass would have potentially made this shine. Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard and the book sports really cool b/w-artworks, all originals. The insides of the covers yield a glorious full-color piece.
The hardcover is amazing – well-constructed, great sleeves, thick paper – one of the production value-wise really impressive tomes and worth the price.
Brendan J. LaSalle, with additional design by Duane Waldrop and Jeff Erwin, has penned one of my all-time favorite non-fantasy settings. The unmitigated wildness of Xcrawl is inspiring and extremely fun; it lets you create wholly different dungeons, tell distinct stories that usually are not represented in other settings. The massive background information, the glorious ideas and the Xcrawl-related tricks are really nice and flavorful and make this a fun book – a glorious book, even; I could make an argument for this being really top of the line in that regard.
At the same time, not all of the classes and player-options hold up well and sport some unfortunate hiccups – to the point, where, if I rated this as a crunch-book alone, it would not fare well. At the same time, systems like the glorious mojo pool or the cool fame engine represent fun subsystems that are extremely hackable. The majority of the classes were honestly not to my liking and crunch-wise, I’d consider this to be a mixed bag. However, the setting and the idea, the concept, make this at the same time a book I’d love to praise to the high heavens. Xcrawl is pretty amazing if you get it, if you take it in the spirit it is intended; if you’re looking mostly for crunchy bits, then this probably won’t hold up as well, as that aspect is simply not as refined.
I am really torn here – between wanting to complain hard and praising this book, it’s hard to find an official verdict. Ultimately, I’d love to rate this 3 stars for the issues in rules-language and formatting…and I’d love to rate this 5 stars + seal of approval for being simply one glorious setting, with great supplemental material. In the end, my official verdict will clock in at 4 stars – if you’re looking for the setting, if the idea intrigues you and if you cherish ideas more than precision in the details, then get this ASAP – Xcrawl is unique, fun and thoroughly inspiring.
You can get the pdf of this unique setting here on OBS!
You can get the print version here on Goodman Games’ store!