Celtic Age (2002)
Mike Benninghof, John R. Phythyon Jr. & Ree Soesbee (Avalanche Press LTD)
I am having a good day and it has been long since my last review, so what better way to cap off the day then with a review of my latest descent into the d20 bubble, Avalanche Style. Pyhthyon and Soesbee teamed up with Gentleman-scholar and Avalanche founder Mike Bennighof to deliver a 191-page campaign setting set in the mythic/historical realm of the Celts from 60 B.C to 60 A.D. It displays all the strengths of Avalanche campaign settings so far (Excellent historical scholarship that conveys enough atmosphere and detail to emulate even unfamiliar historical settings to a great degree) and also all of its flaws (shoddy implementation of the crunch, wonky or trivial crunch, unintuitive or incomplete depictions of mechanics necessary to run the game etc.).
Again I must trot out the by now well-worn mantra of “this-is-nice-but-why-didn’t-you-use-those-pages-for-this-instead?” Let’s dig in.
Celtic Age begins with a whopping 13 pages of introductory history on the Celtic People (the barbarian tribes that inhabited the entire south-west of Europe and England, ahem, Albion besides). Various migrations and wars are covered (they sacked Rome!) and eventually the descriptions condense in funnel-like fashion to cover the Conquest of Gaul and parts of Britannia by what is essentially Celtic Sauron; Julius Caesar. Everything from the impetus for the wars of conquest, the destruction of Vercingetorix, the subjugation of the Belgae (think more thick-witted, friendlier and even smellier versions of the Dutch), the cunning escape of the Morini (proto-dutchmen), to the rise and fall of Boudicca.
This historical overview of the Celts, the different peoples and their way of life and general outlook continues for an estimated 91 pages and 6 more chapters, with occasional tidbits of crunch drip-fed to us side-bars where needed. I am annoyed since the different rules modifications really needed to be in one-place for easy reference. The first real crunch does not appear until chapter 2, which covers the different general tribes of the Celts and their differences in outlook and relationship with the Greeks and Romans.
Now because this is a historical supplement, it would not be complete without an overly complex coverage on the languages of the Celts, with the addition of an Int check modifier to understand different but related dialects, and the addition of about 7 new languages altogether. You get no bonus languages for high int in Celtic Age, but that is okay since you are unlikely to need more then one or two languages (I suggest someone take Latin if the dirty GM is using Romans, which he would be a fool not to). I like it that there is enough variation in the different Celtic peoples to have both a relatively modern city like Noricum with trade and armor to the full-on blue-painted berserkers of the Eiren and the Britons.
Chapter 3 covers the government and society of the Celts. Essentially, the Celts are a tribal warrior-aristocracy of status-obsessed alcoholic teenagers lording it over the bulk of their peoples with threats of violence. It is because of their comparatively effective agriculture and food-rich environment that their population can sustain enough of these psychopathic violent drunks to keep itself in a permanent state of subjugation. Fortunately, no one cares about peasants, and neither should you. Also there are druids and bards (which are very well described so we understand their roles in society).
The third chapter introduces the Status mechanic, one of the more interesting new rules. Essentially, prestige in the Celtic world is everything. Certain actions, mostly involving throwing grand feasts or performing mighty deeds and then bragging about those deeds gets you status points. Get enough points and you can buy a Status level. Each status level, from 1-5, allows you to use certain abilities 1/day (inspire your allies, cause fear or get a one-time bonus to attack).
The best way to achieving status is getting yourself elected chieftain, but one may also gain great prestige from throwing very expensive parties for other warriors or buying/looting really expensive shit to show off (if you cannot show it off it is meaningless). If you really must, you could also gain status by levelling up (almost no status) or doing something really impressive (but you only get the status if you manage to tell a good story about it later on, Perform DC 15, or get someone to do it for you otherwise it does not count) As you gain status levels, you attract a crowd of adorators (literally referred to as parasites) whose sole job consists of singing your praises, provided you support them financially. Notes on their class levels (I am assuming levels of aristocrat or warrior) would have been helpful here.
Becoming a chieftain automatically gets you a level of status, making it something all characters should logically aspire too. Mention is also made of the fact Celts value hospitality a great deal and are so anal-retentive even a minor deception is considered worthy of murder.
The chapter ends with a characteristically lengthy and comprehensive overview on Celtic Trade and currency, with the odd hint that could be turned into a quest hook thrown here or thereabouts. Example: “Celtic legend is full of mystical islands somewhere to the west amid the great ocean, but hard information on sailing to them is impossible to find. Everyone knows the islands are out there, but no one will admit to having actually seen them. They are thought to be inhabited by magical beings or perhaps by the dead.”
Should have been expanded upon more, but ah lass.
Chapter 4 describes Celtic life, covering Architecture, Fashions, Food and Entertainment. While the notes on Celtic architecture and typical structures are useful, the section on Celtic fashions goes on for too long and the board games section should have described in a single sentence (we have the internet after all). Crunch: Celts are so obsessed with status and appearance that a character that gets old enough to lose his hair gradually starts to lose charisma. The Romans actually tonsure captive Celts to demoralize them, and this affects even the charisma of druids, who ritually shave the crown of their head. In addition, anyone showing up for a battle without proper grooming (i.e war paint and stiffened, full lengths of golden hair or nakedness for the sexy lady-warriors among them) gets a -1 penalty to AC and attack rolls.
One of the most devastating things a Celt can do is get fat. For each 25 pounds you gain you lose a Status level. While one can attempt to hide this with a girdle, the consequences for discovery are grim indeed. This chapter meanders on and on in encyclopedic detail about the Celtic diet, their love of gallons and gallons of wine, mead and ale and finally their love of boardgames. Anyone defeating anyone else in a game of Fidgell (i.e Euro-trash Hneftafl) gets a status point, provided witnesses are present.
We get to the meaty bits with the fifth Chapter, over sixty pages in, which covers the Celtic way of war. Celts fucking love fighting and will gladly take any excuse to kill the shit out of eachother. Celts are manly men and thus for the most part disdain both armor and the training in girlish mass maneuvers and other disciplined forms of war, instead preferring individual combats for more glory (a practice that makes their way of war woefully inadequate when contrasted against the disciplined close formation combat of the Romans).Various practices such as cattle raiding, the ritualistic beheading of enemies and inter-tribal warfare are covered in admirable detail.
The question then becomes WHERE TEH FUKC I STEH M4$$ COMBAT SYSTEM?!!11!oneone11!
Everything about this section makes it entirely possible to envision and create a Celtic military quest or campaign. Except for the omission of a mass battle system. Green Ronin had a wonderfully simple yet useful mass battle system for the d20. Why don’t you have one Avalanche?
Seriously, they even give us a great piece of flunch rule called the Naming of Virtues for Champion fights between different Celtic armies (they issue challenges to other armies but they tend not to accept them themselves, being massive hypocrites). Better hope you put ranks in Perform! For each virtue or noble feat the champion (usually the chieftain) can name and successfully test against, he gets either a +1 to hit or damage. Naturally it is possible to belittle each virtue of the opposing champion, again where the Perform ranks come into play (fucking specify what form of performance next time Avalanche we are not savages), since these play a large roll in setting the DC of the Will save. This Naming of Virtues is also where one’s parasites come into play, as these can provide a bonus to the Perform check based on their number and highest number of ranks in the Perform skill.
I like it that a Celtic warrior is expected to be proficient in either the sword (the longsword or greatsword that symbolizes the warrior’s humongous phallus, which is why the Celts laugh at the puny gladiuses of the Romans) or the spear. Other weapons are available but are considered to be of lesser merit.
Plenty of rules are added to bring out the unique feel of the warrior’s bond with his weaponry, from the ability to level up one’s weapon with xp (sensible in the absence of widespread magic weapons and adds to the mystic bond a warrior has with his blade) to the maintenance of weaponry (trivial, annoying and unnecessarily detailed, with three separate penalty mechanisms for forgetting to sharpen, oil or clean one’s weapon). It goes without saying that any Celt of 3rd level or above who does not spend a small fortune on an ornate scabbard (which is expected to be increasingly ornate as the Celt levels up) gets a penalty to Charisma for not being fancy enough.
I am annoyed at the mention of Chariots (there is even a Charioteering skill, presented later in the book) but no rules for chariot-combat. Fucking hell.
The last two chapters before we get to some serious crunch cover women in Celtic society and druids/bards/leaning. Despite the fact that the chapter on women chooses to open with the topic of RAPE this is actually a very informative chapter that covers most essential aspects (women warriors, marriage, childrearing, fosterage) without dragging on forever or outstaying its welcome. The chapter on learning covers the Bard (or Fili) and the Celtic Druid, their training and their role in society as well as the Celtic alphabet (nice fluff but useless). The chapter gets tongue in cheek as it covers mimes:
…This freedom attracts some who can’t seem to fit into society; in a later age, these people would probably turn to Internet discussion boards to unleash their rage at an unfair world. Lacking that outlet, they turn to street theater to express themselves.
A noteworthy rule for all Celts is the Fitness of things. Celts that lie gain cumulative penalties to all rolls for 24 hours. Those that lie more then 3 times per week or 5 times per month suffer permanent charisma loss. This applies only to Celts (so not to Romans). Interesting concept for a campaign setting, given that deception is such a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the player character.
We get to some proper crunch in chapter 8, which covers Celtic mythology, gods and myths. There is some good stuff here, such as the Feast of Ages, the means by which the gods remain immortal. Anyone who partakes of the feast of ages (only possible after a direct invitation from the gods) is immortal for a whole year, but after participating but a single time, the mortal world seems lifeless and grey. Only a Will save DC 25 can stir a hero who has tasted the feast of the immortals into action in the mortal world (a great idea for a quest actually, stir some legendary hero who sits in his halls, wiling away the times, lost in ennui). There is also some neat stuff about magical wells:
“Some of the darker beliefs of the Celts suggest that if a person drinks the water of a sacred well in a special cup made from the skull of a severed head on Samhain night, they can speak to the dead, creating a direct link to those who have passed beyond. This is dangerous, however, as those who perform such an action are treading directly on the power of Arawn, the Death-God, and his wrath is never suffered lightly.”
Also great fluff on the geilt, mad hermits who have tasted the food of the gods and spent too much time in their lands and now cannot function in society, cursed with the gift of prophecy (great fodder for Npc’s). Mortals in Celtic mythology can become immortals in this process with relative ease, and the game provides you with a divine template (mercifully, gods in CA are not as ridiculously overpowered as they were in the ridiculous official Deities and Demigods handbook). I would go so far as to say the actual deities described in this book are almost useful (had they been created using some sort of multi-classing rule, instead of the simple BAB/Saving throw Stack of DEATH that makes all attempts to convert deity stats in d20 a hopeless futile mess).
The section on Celtic deities proper is nice and gives you plenty of food for thought but the actual stats for the Ascended seem cobbled together without rhyme or reason (lacking an Epic handbook at the time I suspect). This may be a superior alternative to simply abiding by the restrictions of the d20 system however, since it will swiftly turn anything with sufficient HD into an unstoppable killing machine. The use of domains for the Celtic gods makes little sense since it is made clear in the fluff that Druids are the sole authorities on the gods, and anyone wanting to sacrifice to them must do so with their blessing or not at all. I will also throw a shitfit right here at the omission of crunch for sacrifices to the gods, ah la the Book of Vile Darkness. The fact that the cleric class exists for the Celts at all is incompatible with the fluff.
The gods themselves are fucking cool. You have your creepy death god, your one-eyed god of formorians, your hunt god, your sexy bard god, your stag god and your horse god. The crone-god Morrigan, iron-toothed reaper wearing goddess of battle, strife and fertility, both separate entity and aspect of the Triple Godess (maiden, mother, crone) is probably my favorite.
After 125-pages we finally get to the class section. CA makes the sensible decision of omitting about half the classes described in the 3rd edition PHB, leaving you with the cleric, fighter, rogue, ranger and sorcerer. No notes are given on what these classes are meant to be in the CA campaign, which pisses me off (notes on the cleric, ranger and sorcerer would have been helpful).
CA gives us three new classes. The Celtic druid is a spell-point based divine spellcaster who serves as arbitrator, teacher and interpreter of the will of the gods. In classic sloppy Avalanche fashion, Key requisite ability score for spellcasting is not specified and you do not gain bonus “understanding” points for high ability scores. Nevertheless,this is certainly a viable class, and a welcome power-down from the monstrously powerful Core Rulebook Druid. The Monk has been replaced with the Coriocht, an unarmored wrestler class not unlike the monk (but without the bonuses to AC or mystical abilities), with a supposed focus on grappling and disarming. The fact that the Coriocht’s improved unarmed damage does not apply to grappling moves and the lack of cool wrestling moves until very late in the classes progression makes this class feel a incoherent. As written, it is more of a pugilist then a wrestler class. Needs Improved Grapple at 2nd level minimum.
The bard has been replaced by the Fili, a bard class with no spells who gains his power mostly from his class abilities. Though the class is very weak mechanically, the most potent class ability (Satire) is very interesting, relying on successful performance checks to insult one’s fellow Celts (the Fili is essentially powerless against monsters or Romans). As the Fili increases in levels, the Satire inflicts more then just Morale penalties, advancing to Curses, hit point damage, Stunning and culminating in the dreaded Ainmed, a satire so potent it can kill the target. While some of the abilities are really neat and creative (if the Fili can successfully place an Enduring Nickname on a target that target suffers the loss of two points of Charisma and a Character level), and the ability to eventually use Satire at a distance (say, one a crowd of the target’s followers with a max range of 10 miles per level of the fili) makes the Fili a potent indirect foe, the low DC of the abilities (the highest is DC 15+charisma modifier) makes the class weak and underpowered compared to the other classes. When and exactly how Satire works at a distance is somewhat confusing and unexplored, but overall the class is at least useful in a game, albeit with some GM arbitration. Change the DC for satire to 10+1/2 Fili class levels+charisma modifier to prevent the last 3 levels of the Fili class from becoming entirely dead-weight.
Prestige classes (this is a d20 supplement etc. etc.) are flavourful and not shit but hard to combine with the normally independent nature of PC adventurers.
The Fianna Eirin are the elite bodyguard of Ireland’s High King, nimble and proud, whose very presence inspires men to great feats of daring and bravery. Sadly of limited use for PC’s since they may not leave Ireland. The Gaestatae are Celtic mercenaries and terrifying spearmen who have foregone their traditions of war, fighting in formation like the Romans, whose loyalty is such that they will even fight family members or other Gaestatae once they take a contract. Again, since they tend to be found in Bands they are of limited use for PCs.
The third class is marginally more viable; the Wild Women are female bodyguards of the druids who gain the use of a sort of barbarian rage and limited divine spellcasting though they must be loyal to the druids.
Since this is Avalanche the equipment section is terrible, or to be more accurate, there is none, only a list of restricted equipment in a CA campaign. Not necessarily a problem, if not for the fact that THERE IS NO PRICE FOR CHARIOTS CA. Sloppy.
Chapter 10 introduces some new rules, starting out with some feats. Formation fighting is a feat that only non-celts can qualify for and provides a nice mechanical way of illustrating the devastating effectiveness of this tactic. Any closed ranks formation of at least five people that all have this feat gain +1 to hit and +3 to AC. Other good shit includes feats that give you a bonus for fighting in the nude, a feat that allows you to behead people on a critical hit (essentially if you confirm a critical hit twice you behead your opponent, killing him instantly) and a feat that allows you to disarm people by catching their weapons on your shield. The rest is pretty standard.
New skills are Charioteering (shit because there are no Charioteering-fighting rules and no notes on who has the skill, I assume fighters only) and Composition, a skill that allows you to get bonuses on perform skills. So a skill that is without fully fleshed out rules and a skill whose sole purpose is to get bonuses on another skill. Ugh. There are some pretty advanced rules for getting drunk but no mechanical incentive to do so (i.e loss of status if you do not partake or something), which sucks (though there are feats that allow you to better resist the effects of alcohol). Other topics include the effects of Geasa (magic oaths that cause permanent penalties if you break them) and their role in Celtic society, and Severing Heads. Celts can gain power from severing the heads of opponents they slay in personal combat, and can use this power to gain various abilities or bonuses. Think the Panaché rules of AfO or Black Flags, only instead of impressing crowds of starved peasants you lop the heads of your human foes in personal combat. The head of your most powerful slain opponent can be kept inside your house to serve as a gruesome talisman of protection and give you a bonus on your charisma, and can even be sold or traded with your friends (though the effect diminishes).
The last two sections, covering 40 pages or so in total, describe animals both mundane and fantastical. I find the section on mundane animals gives interesting information on the roles of certain animals in the Celtic world, but the duplication of stat blocks for many of the animals is redundant. We already have stats for wolves, cattle, bears, deer and boars (and why is there an entry for a swarm of Bees?!? What the actual fuck). A waste for the most part. Conversely, some of the mundane entries are great. Chickens detect magic at will but they are still chickens thus some way of figuring out when exactly the chicken has detected magic must be found. The bones of a dead frog provide protection from evil in a 5 foot radius. Salmon are the oldest creatures in the universe and by eating their flesh one can gain a fragment of insight or a fraction of their knowledge of nature and the universe. The Wild Hunt is mentioned but no rules are provided for it, making me a sad panda. Too long for what it needed to be. Better to have used the same space for describing more Celtic legendary beasties (i.e the Cat Heads, the Banshee).
The monster section is pretty good, mentioning monsters from the MM appropriate for a Celtic setting and adding much needed mythical flavor. A lot of the creatures feel strange and resemble no sensible ecology, often taking the form of magical animals or animal hybrids, giving it that ancient myth flavor that is often missing in modern iterations of DnD. The dreaded Black Dogs, the formidable Boobrie, the horrific Formorians, the winged Amphitere, the nightmarish Devil’s Dandy Dogs who are led by the ghost of a man and return to life an hour after they are slain (one must escape them for an entire night if one is to survive) and the hideous Nuckleavee. All of the monsters have CRs of between 2 to 8, making their use likely in a typical game. Amusingly, the Roman Legionaire is an entry in this section (for some reason all Roman legionaries have a Dex of 14). Real criticism I can level is that the flavor text and the stats don’t always add up (i.e black dogs can become invisible but they don’t have the stats to reflect this, nor a track feat to allow them to hunt and the flesh-eating Sianach has no bite attack).
For all its pages on Celtic culture and mythology and all its various subsystems designed to emulate this period, CA remains a woefully uneven work, falling prey to all the pitfalls of Avalanche products we have seen so far. While it is certainly playable and not without considerable merit, the transition from fluff to crunch is about as subtle as a car-crash and a lot of the rules have clearly not been thought out or been given the play-testing they needed. Certain section are of dubious use while others needed more fleshing out. What could have been a triumphant return to the historical fantasy DnD of 2e instead feels like an inferior copy of the old Historical Reference Sourcebook that is both shorter and superior to this lengthy work. That being said, Celtic Age is not without its charms and I would be lying if I said its tales of Formorians, Magic wells, Feasts of Ages, the knowledge of Salmon, Geasa, ghost dog hunts, Namings of Virtues and single combats, crone goddess, cattle raids and wise salmon do not set a fire in the mind. A reverse Dark Albion if you will.
Pros: Extensively detailed treatise on the rich culture and history of the Celts. Interesting rules variations to motivate roleplaying and facilitate emulation. Nice mythological bestiary. Interesting new rules. Gems of inspiration make for a variety of possible quests.
Cons: Overly detailed in the wrong places. No mass combat system to gain the best out of the period. No charioteering rules, making the skill relatively useless, inadequate equipment section, rules poorly thought out or incomplete, classes poorly thought out.
Final Verdict: While it suffers from a variety of mechanical defects and the omission of certain rules renders many of the historical details hard to implement, Celtic Age gives you enough detail to run at least a short campaign in the Celtic Age of Heroes. It is a work of careful scholarship and horribly negligent game design. While it is never unplayable, it is rough and unpolished. A phyrric victory for Avalanche. 5.5 out of 10.
Next-up: A return to the OSR?!? Will I finally publish another session of CARCOSA? What of DCC?
Your Prince is not dead, oh kind and loyal readers. He has merely slumbered.