Celtic Age: Roleplaying the Myths, Heroes and Monsters of the Celts

At the time of Christ, a legendary culture was on the rise in Northern Europe.  Two millennia later they would be remembered for their reverence of nature, their treatment of women, and their courage in battle.  Had they been allowed to expand and grow, they might have had their own Golden Age and Western culture might be very different today.  Instead, they met the Romans, who eventually conquered them all.  This magnificent people was the Celts, and this is their story. 

This volume explores their culture.  Find out who they were, what they held holy, the monsters they fought -- both real and mythical -- why they battled each other, and what gave them joy.  In addition to providing tons of detailed material on the Celts, this book allows you to bring them into your d20 campaign.  A host of new Character Classes, Feats, Skills, and other special new rules, makes this the definitive book on fantasy role-playing in the Celtic Age.

Celtic Age is an Origins Award Winner, so it is clear before cracking the book open, to dislike it would put you on the wrong side of gamers’ popular opinion.  Unlike other books by Avalanche Press, the cover art is conspicuously missing a scantily clad woman.  Instead, a complex Celtic knot motif adorns the cover, making this one book that’s safe to bring with you in public.

The book itself is divided into twelve chapters.  The first seven (and a half) chapters deal with historical aspects of Celtic culture.  The remaining chapters are dedicated to game rules that aim to convert the ‘fluff’ into useable ‘crunch’.

To understand what the book offers, it is helpful to look at each chapter in order.  The first chapter covers Celts in History, particularly focusing on wars with Rome between 58 BC and 52 BC.  The next chapter on the Celtic World describes where the Celts lived and how they varied based on region.  I was surprised to learn that the Galatians of New Testament fame were Celts living in modern-day Turkey.  The Celtic realm spread west from Turkey to Ireland, and included modern day France, Spain, and England.  While this chapter provides a lot of information on Celtic Tribes, it is severely hampered by the lack of a map.  This chapter does include a map of England/Wales (Albion) with the location of those tribes marked.  For the rest, it’s guesswork unless you have a detailed knowledge of European geography, and I stress detailed.  Working with a map of Europe, it should be possible to place these tribes in a very general way.

The third chapter details Celtic society, such as the divisions between the warrior and commoner class.  While treating the popular view that Celtic society was egalitarian, it shows that existing Celtic society was easily transformed into feudal society where peasants were no more than chattel.  Essentially, the popular view is debunked, and makes for an interesting read.  The next chapter deals with Celtic life, and important habits, such as grooming.

Throughout these chapters, there are several sidebars that suggest rules for a Celtic style campaign.  I personally find it a little distracting, since most of these suggestions range from bad to terrible.  It’s jarring, like when you listen to stories from your racist uncle that always brings up how the ‘wetbacks’ are ruining this country.  What might otherwise be a good story just leaves you feeling uncomfortable.  According to the chapter on grooming, failing to ‘groom properly’ before a battle results in a -1 untyped penalty to attack and damage rolls.  Another rule on the facing page is that when a male character begins to experience a ‘receding hairline’, he begins taking Charisma damage (1 point per year) to a maximum of -5 to his Charisma.  These types of rules that are somewhat vague in the actual requirements and don’t necessarily work in a ‘standard’ game – though there are a lot of suggestions for what NOT to do in a Celtic game that you might do in a standard D&D romp.It feels that they’re trying to foist off half-baked rules that cause more harm than good.

The next chapter deals with the all-important aspect of the Celts at war.  It describes how they fight and WHY they fight.  Again, it slips in rules that deal with minutia best left out of a game.  After each fight, characters must ‘sharpen their blade’ or they suffer a -1 cumulative penalty.  After three battles without sharpening a blade, they deal only half damage.  While the fluff is engaging and extremely informative, each time I come across one of these rules I feel like I’m being slapped in the face.

Chapter seven deals with Celtic women.  While it is clear that women warriors were a minority, they are common enough to be played in a normal game.  The fact that they typically fought naked (as did the men) may make some female players uncomfortable.  To encourage historical accuracy, a female that goes into combat wearing clothing suffers a -1 to attacks and AC.  Again, there is a lot of very good and very interesting information – it’s just the rules don’t seem to do a good job of bringing the fluff alive. 

The next chapter, and final strictly ‘cultural’ chapter, deals with Celtic learning.  It includes a full Celtic alphabet laid out in an easy to reference graphic.  That alone might be worth the price of the book if you’re looking for a historical basis for runes that doesn’t rely entirely on the Norse runes. They’re designed to be carved into stones so feature different combinations of straight lines (most having some resemblance to a tree with a stem and ‘branches’).

Chapter nine deals with both a cultural issue – belief in the divine, and a game rule issue – stats for Celtic gods.  Surprisingly, while this book was published prior to Viking Age, it does a better job mechanically with creating the Gods.  The hit dice for being divine are d10s, rather than d8s, and it specifies that these are ‘outsider HD’.  It doesn’t say it anywhere near where it actually talks about the gods or adding the ascended template, but it’s in there somewhere. 

Chapter ten dives into the heart of any campaign – character class options.  This is the section that will matter most to players, since this will largely determine what they can and cannot do.  The chapter begins by forbidding the following classes: Barbarian, Bard, Druid, Monk, Paladin, and Wizard.  I would like to go on record saying that allowing the traditional sorcerer in the Celtic game, while apparently allowed, will probably completely blow the game apart.  In fact, any overtly magical class including the cleric and ranger that are technically allowed, probably have issues.  The first is that magic for the druid works much differently and is much more limited.  The Druid gains magic as access to five ‘circles’.  Each circle includes two levels of spell (0th and 1st; 2nd and 3rd; etc).At 16th level the druid has access to all levels of spells.However, the class powers all spells with ‘understanding’, which is a spell point system.  Druids receive 5 understanding points per druid level, and do not receive bonus understanding for a high attribute.  Thus, a 16th level druid would have 80 understanding each day.  The costs for spells seem to increase exponentially.  A first circle spell costs one or two points; a second circle spell costs four or eight points; a third circle spell costs 15 or 25 points; a fourth circle spell costs 35 or 50 points, and all fifth circle spells cost 75 points.  Thus, at 16th level a druid can cast one of their most powerful spells, but probably won’t be able to cast a single spell of even the second circle thereafter.  Even at 20th level a druid can’t cast more than two spells of the fourth circle per day.  The druid also loses any wild shape ability that the druid in the core rules has, instead gaining several magical abilities related to protection from evil and circle of protection.  As you can imagine, a druid that loses access to nearly all spells and the wild shape ability without gaining anything in its place is much weaker than the standard class.  Compared to the standard sorcerer, well, it’s not pretty balance-wise.

This chapter also introduces the Coraiocht (wrestler) that combines features of the fighter and the standard monk (good BAB, increasing unarmed strike damage,and a combination of both bonus feats and special abilities that mostly emulate standard feats but are more limited (improved disarm, but only with a shillelagh; sunder, but only with a shillelagh).  The actual progression is a little confusing.  The Coraiocht gains a bonus feat at 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 20th levels.  Special abilities come at 1st, 3rd, 6th, 12th and 18th.  The bonus feats are limited to a list of only eighteen, so is restricted in some degree from a standard fighter, but not to the point that anyone should care.  Power Attack, Cleave, Improved Trip and Improved Critical are all on the list, along with plenty of other popular fighter bonus feats.  Basically, there’s no reason for anyone planning on playing a fighter NOT to take their first three levels in Coraiocht.  A Fighter 5 has five feats and a +4 Fortitude save.  A Coraiocht 3/Fighter 2 has six feats, a +6 Fortitude save, 1d6 unarmed damage, Unarmed Strike and Stunning Attack.

The Fili class replaces the standard bard.  Many of the abilities don’t really work in normal combat, relegating this class most appropriately to an NPC role.  Others are laughably weak (and I mean when compared to a standard bard!).  For example, at 5th level the Fili can ‘wound with words’.  He can deal 1d8 + Charisma modifier in damage to a single target once per day for every three levels he possesses.  That is to say, he can do it once per day when he gains the ability.  This may be offset a little by the second level ability – the Fili can effectively cast bull’s strength, cat’s grace, or bear’s endurance a number of times per day equal to his Charisma modifier, each casting lasting for 10 rounds.  While it doesn’t allow him to affect multiple allies the way standard bardic music does, it does give a slightly better (and more versatile boost) at low levels, but only at low levels. 

The rest of the chapter is devoted to three full attack progression prestige classes.  Each class gains a special feature every level.  Among the thirty levels presented, five include ‘bonus feat’ as the special ability.  It feels a little like the designers simply couldn’t think of anything worthwhile and filled in 20% of their missing spaces with bonus feats as an easy out. 

Chapter 10 provides other game rules, such as feats and mechanical benefits for decapitating your foes.  The head of a 21st level character provides you with a +6 Charisma bonus.  Like Viking Age, one of the feats allows you to begin beheading opponents at 4th level.I  f you take this feat and score a critical hit, roll again to confirm.  If this is also a confirmation, you decapitate your enemy (as long as they are not more than one size category larger than you) and kill them instantly.

Wow.

A feat like that brings huge balance concerns into the game.  It’s even worse when used on the PCs.  But the scariest thing is that that’s not even the worst feat among the ten feats presented.  Two of them deal with being drunk, but the absolute worst is Celtic Spear proficiency. The halfspear and shortspear are both removed from the game, and replaced with the Celtic throwing spear and Celtic fighting spear (or thrusting spear, depending on where you look in the book), respectively.  While both are ostensibly ‘simple weapons’, my understanding of the feat is that without it, you cannot be proficient with either weapon.  So with this feat you eliminate the -4 penalty for fighting with a weapon with which you are not proficient (despite the fact that all classes have proficiency with simple weapons).  And what else?  Well, if you throw a spear, you can get +1 on the attack, but reduce the range increment from 20 feet to 10 feet.  That’s it.  Again, it appears that the rules are not supporting the fluff – if fighting with spears is common, it would do well to give everyone proficiency with them without requiring an additional feat. 

Chapter 11 addresses the relationship of the Celts to animals in the natural world.  Game statistics are provided for each creature.  However, that’s not as exciting as it sounds.  In this chapter you’ll find: bees, cats, cattle, chicken, dog, goose, horse, pig, sheep, auroch (really big cows), bear, boar, deer, frog, salmon, and wolf.  Nearly half of these animals are already detailed in the Monstrous Manual, the rest are probably not going to need stats in most games. 

The final chapter, however, is much stronger and somewhat redeeming.  It offers nineteen additional monsters for use in a Celtic campaign.  That felt like a glaring omission from Viking Age, and it is good to have that included.

Fundamentally, this book actually makes a good resource for providing information on an ancient culture.  It is great for world-building and offers plenty of information to inspire a DM to create rules to support play in the world that it describes.  Unfortunately, it falls well short of actually providing the mechanical crunch to support that game.  For whatever reason, information about the Celtic people and Celtic world doesn’t seem to be as readily available as information on other cultures, such as the Vikings.  So, for those interested in ‘fluff’, this may very well be a worthwhile purchase.  Those that spend their gaming dollars on ‘crunchy’ supplements are probably best advised to stay away.  Adopting the rules from this book wholesale to a Celtic campaign will likely end in disaster.

 

 

Celtic Age: Roleplaying the Myths, Heroes and Monsters of the Celts

Author: John R. Phythyon, Jr., Ree Soesbe, and Mike Bennighof, PHD

Publisher: Avalanche Press

Publish Date: 07/2003

ISBN: 193209104-1

Pages: 192

Rating:Rating 6

Retail Price: $19.99