Game Review: Nights of the Crusades by MJ Alishah from Aetheric Dreams

Occasionally I get the opportunity to review something that is at once both familiar and completely new. There’s nothing wrong with variations on a theme, but it’s nice to see a fresh take on roleplaying that offers something new to sink my teeth into along with the traditional trappings that usually accompany a RPG product.

A while back, MJ Alishah dropped me a note and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing his game Nights of the Crusades. And this is definitely *his* game. He wrote, edited, laid out, and even created the art for this book. And he succeeded in creating something that captures the wild, magical, sandy tales of the traditional stories of 1,001 Arabian Nights and manages to merge them with some of the history of The Crusades. This combination should offer plenty of leeway between historical adventures and the rich lands of Scheherazade. If you’re looking for a place to tell tales of Crusaders, saracen blades, flying carpets, and djinni – this is the place folks!

Though NotC offers a roleplaying experience – complete with a character, action resolution, dice, and the whole shebang – ultimately it is more about a shared storytelling experience. But I’ll get to that in a bit…

The book begins with “The Mythos,” which describes a bit about the context of the game. There are broad categories of characters – Crusaders in the Middle East to save the Holy Land, Assassins bent on destroying them and protecting their way of life, and Merchants seeking to bridge the gap long enough to sell their wares and make some coin. And these three groups all operate in the space between the Black Sea and the Red Sea. To fill this space, you have a summary of the history of the Crusades and 1,001 tales Scheherazade told to her husband in an attempt to save her own life.

MJ includes a great list of links, books, and music to check out to help you get in the right frame of mind. But if you’re in the mood for films set during the Crusades or in the world of Arabian Nights, you might check out films like Disney’s Aladdin, Kingdom of Heaven, and even Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Others include any of the Sinbad movies – The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. It’s tough to go wrong with flying carpets, evil wizards, and djinni offering wishes willy nilly.

Then the book transitions into creating a character and equipping them. Characters in NotC are high concept, meaning you should really have an idea in your head before you start creating. The “Conjuring a Character” chapter includes a collection of questions to ponder to help you get a concept together. Once you have that, you dive into the rest of the short process.

  • What’s your faction? Are you one of the Franj (a Crusader from Europe), a Byzantine Crusader, or a Saracen (an Arab)?
  • What’s your religion? Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Islam (Sunni or Shi’ite), Jewish, or even a Pagan.
  • What’s your class? Artist, Cleric, Laborer, Merchant, Noble, Outcast, Peasant, Scholar, or Warrior.
  • Is there an organization behind you like a religious, merchant, or warrior order?
  • What are your areas of expertise? Pick an ability from any of these areas: Communication, Knowledge, Melee, Ranged, or Vigour. For instance, do you Blather (Communication) to confuse your opponents and gain more time? Do you dabble in Alchemy (Knowledge)? Are you skilled in hand-to-hand with the ability to both Grapple and Disarm (Melee) your opponents?
  • Do you have a particular favorite or hated group? Are you a Saracen Assassin with a hatred of the Franj? Or do you favor all priests from the Roman Catholic faith? “Favour” one, “Hate” another?
  • And then how do you tell a story? Storytelling is a critical part of this system – what genres (Adventure, Drama, or Mystery) do you favor?

Once you have a character, you can pick up the tools of whatever trade your character has chosen to pursue. These include mundane weapons and armor, clothes, special items such as alchemical tools, and even certain books of legend. But here’s where NotC goes a bit further… You don’t just buy items. You barter for them, as you’ll see…

"The King Shahryar Pardons Scheherazade", by Arthur Boyd Houghton (1836–1875) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a lengthy chapter about “Gameplay” that includes a multi-page example of an actual session with different types of action resolution. And once you read through that, you have enough of an overview to dive into the actual mechanics. The core idea is that of challenges – whether it’s a d10 or a d100, everything is a contest between the character and an opponent or a difficulty. It took me a couple of read-thrus to figure out, but I think it works like this…

Challenges start with a 50% chance of success. That 50% is then adjusted based on the number of points in an expertise (Communication, Knowledge, etc). If your opponent is better than you, the difference swings their way. For example, if you have 2 points of Communication and your opponent has 1, there’s a difference of 1 – for each point of difference on your side, you add to the 50% – and if it goes the other way, you subtract from it. Then you get to roll on a d100 under that target number.

If you’re not going against an opponent and it’s against a difficulty, you roll a d10 under the difficulty.

This mechanic goes all the way through the rest of the game… Negotiations use it to try and sway one character’s opinion… You use it when Haggling at the marketplace. You use it in combat… Have to love a consistent mechanic!

And lastly there’s the in-game storytelling between characters. This is where those points you put into genre come into play. Again, it’s a challenge, with some randomness selecting the genre with modifiers based on the points in your character’s genres. And the insights you get from every story can lead to gaining benefits called “Pearls of Wisdom” – you can use these points to do various things like affect your wealth, adjust difficulties, gain symbols of power, and more. Think of them as “Brownie Points” for telling a good tale you can spend later.

The rest of the book deals with various topics like advancing characters with experience, various symbols of power (like your own fief, a mosque or church constructed on your land, or maybe even buying a ship), and then weaving tales as the “Tale-Weaver” (the GM for NotC). Since this game operates a bit different than others, there are key ideas and themes that are suggested to explore, as well as a sample adventure with pre-generated characters.

I *love* the idea of working in-game storytelling into the mechanics for a RPG. It’s a bit of a “Story Game” wrapped in a traditional roleplaying game – a hybrid that I’m dying to try out.

As far as presentation goes, this is a gorgeous
book. The art is great throughout… The titles and body text are easy to read for the most part. My only complaint is a minor one… There are quotes scattered every page or two and they’re in a very flowery font that is meant to look medieval, but to me was very difficult to read. Out of the whole 100+ page book, that’s my only gripe. MJ did a heck of a job. I know how difficult it is to do all the things necessary for a book project as a one-man shop and this is darn near perfect.

If you’re looking for something different and new, I’d strongly encourage you to check out Night of the Crusades by MJ Alishah. You can’t beat the price – it’s currently free. And MJ now offers some interactive character sheets to help with the character creation process. as well. Those are only $1 or $2, but you can check out the book itself for nothing.

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