Saturday, December 5, 2020

(AD&D 2e)The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook

 This fucking book.

It's not that it's bad. Quite the opposite, really. The Historical Reference series has had a pretty high level of quality, and The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook doesn't disappoint. It's just . . . It's a book about the Crusades, published by TSR in 1994.

It would be easier if the book were racist. I know how to handle a malevolent book. However, this particular one tries - and largely succeeds - at presenting a humane and balanced look at the time period. But it also has lines like -

"Although early Crusades were often marred by episodes of brutality and religious intolerance . . ."

Oh, were they?! Religious intolerance? In a Crusade?

I could pull quote after quote of this curious semi-naivete. One more -

"The few incidences of Frankish brutality greatly hindered the process of negotiating peace with their Muslim neighbors."

I mean, I'd quibble with the word "few" here, but the general sentiment is correct. The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook doesn't shy away from the awfulness of Crusades, but it also never quite gets away from the idea that we're supposed to find that surprising. That we will sympathize with and excuse the Europeans is simply taken for granted.

We're not supposed to. It's not a good impulse. The book goes out of its way to highlight the achievements of Islamic culture and urges us not to look at the Muslims as "evil pagans." Saladin is "the most glamorous figure of the Crusades" and the book has not a single bad word to say about him. But it also assumes we're going to be heavily invested in the successful prosecution of a Crusade.

It's weird as hell. I think the DMing chapter is as close as we ever get to a concrete expression of the book's point of view: "This sourcebook has not glossed over the injustices and petty hatreds that often (ed: "often"?!) dominated the Crusades, but a campaign should approach the era differently . . . When obsolete medieval attitudes (bigotry, xenophobia, casual cruelty) would keep players from fully enjoying the game, replace those attitudes with more modern beliefs."

I think we're supposed to view it like a team sport. The pope will call for a Crusade, the Fatimid Caliph will counter with a Jihad, and Jerusalem passes back and forth between sides like a football, but in the end, it's all in good fun. You get some outdoor exercise, maybe slay a few infidels in a rough and tumble manly sort of way, but there's no hard feelings.

And I don't know. Maybe 1100 CE is long enough ago that the wounds have healed. I'll admit, it doesn't always feel that way, but I think that may be because Islamophobia has gotten worse over the past 25 years.

Plus, I've played two different "Crusader Kings" games, and it would be pretty hypocritical of me to start demanding that the Crusades be treated with all the same sensitivity we expect for more recent atrocities.

Despite some Orientalist leanings - the two major Islamic states are described as corrupt and "ripe for conquest" and the Assassins are literally called "terrorists" (which I'm pretty sure was a racially-loaded term even in 1994, and is only forgivable because it's somewhat accurate and they are presented as being allied with the Franks) - I do feel compelled to recognize that TSR published a book about the Crusades, in 1994, that directly and unambiguously rebuked the fucking "Deus Vult" memes we're seeing today. That's not nothing.

Mechanically, this book is about as good as you can expect for AD&D second edition. Priests inexplicably keep their magic powers in "historical" games, but the rules for modifying those powers are better thought out than we've seen in the past. For more fantasy-oriented games, it suggests using the Sha'ir kit from Al Qadim to represent both Arabian sorcerers and European witches, which is an idea so good and so obvious that I'm ashamed I didn't think of it first.

The curation of spell lists is a little weird. There's a suggestion that you could replace mages with psionicists for fantasy-genre games (a good idea I did have), but when it trims the power list, it says that Control Flame is inappropriate, but somehow Disintegrate is fine. I'm not saying they picked powers at random to exclude, but I can think of no better explanation.

Overall, I'd say that The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook is better left as a historical curiosity. It's not nearly as bad as the worst of its contemporaries when it comes to presenting non-European cultures, but it does fill a niche - minimally cynical fantasy adventure against the backdrop of the Crusades - that simply doesn't need to be filled. Try using it today and your best case scenario is that your players are as confused as I am.

Ukss Contribution: One of the new kits was the "Pardoner" rogue. They're con artists who pose as priests and sell indulgences and relics. The fake relic trade is one of those historical oddities that I always found morbidly fascinating, and I could probably find a place for it on Ukss.


  1. I share the fascination with pardoners.


  2. I suppose Pardoners could make sense in an OD&D kind of ouvre, where there are "real" priests who don't yet have access to thermodynamics-defying miracles.

    In many fantasy games, including later D&Ds, that gets really questionable, because it's just hard for me to see how any con artist could keep up with the brazen supernatural displays of even low-level magic.

    1. Well, it's weird because priest magic is available even in "historical" games, but if you did do a martial-only game, the Pardoners would fit right in.

      In a normal fantasy game, maybe they're the divine-magic equivalent of snake oil salesman. Efficacious spells do exist, but these guys just sell stuff that will get you super high.

    2. Sure, but snake oil works because real-life medicine is subtle, complicated, and slow.

      It would take a heck of a drug to convince someone they'd been Cure Light Wounds'd. Or to trick zombies into acting turned.

      (And, yes, it makes sense in historical settings - religion-based scams happen all the time in real life. I was musing upon what it implies about priestly powers in UKSS.)