Retrospective: Castle Perilous (1980)

 Castle Perilous is (nowadays) an extremely rare fantasy rpg to get your hands on.

It was published in 1980 by West Wind Simulations and written by James T. Sheldon.

It is certainly one of the most obscure item i own in my personal collection.

Today i have unearthed my boxed set and i have decided to make a cover-to-cover of this game. 

I'm back with obscure relics from my catacomb! So, without further ado, and to give anyone the chance to gather information on hard-to-find fantasy rpg's, let us try to ascertain the characteristics of Castle Perilous.

The boxed set comes with a gorgeous 73 pages yellow box, a three black  six sided dice, 4 metal miniatures (as you can see in the photos), three art pages, a little four pages booklet summarizing major combat rules, a blue page called "Table of random numbers for 6 digits" (which use i still have to unravel), and what seems a four page booklet of a starting adventure called "For the Marchwarden Only".

You may wonder what the "Marchwarden" is; well, in this game it is the equivalent term for designating the Dungeon Master.

The interior art for the game is done by Jack S. Hollandbeck.

The firts pages of the book are the Introduction to the game.

At the very beginning the author shares some insightful considerations about the game in general, such as the fact that in the game what is of paramount importance (despite the visual aids you may or may not utilize on the table) is the spoken word. This spoken words ignites your imagination (this is the concept he more or less tries to convey).

The author goes on saying that dice for playing are expensive and therefore they are NOT provided in the boxed set (that strikes me as odd due to the fact that there are three dice inside, as i said). Perhaps the author meant "professional dice" are not provided? Such as d20, d8, and so on? This is the only explanation i can give because the dice inside are very basic in their appearance (simple six-sided ones)

Let's move on.

We learn that there will several supplements of this game, in the form of scenario detailing both the rule system and the world of Castle Perilous. At least one scenario will give the players the opportunity to fight the "Great Enemy" which threatens this world. Before the section on character types (more on that in a minute), the author explains that a game is more than just bloodshed. I like this.

He says that, in fact, there are adventures around at that time (1981) where there is almost no bloodshed at all but where the game is greatly enjoyed by the party because of the skill put into it by the Marchwarden, who injects richness into them.


Here begins the list of character types available in the game.

There are 9 basic character types. One of them is the Marchwarden (the one who is in charge of controlling any NPC in the game), the others are the Barbarian, Knight, Magical Character, Shield Maiden, the Halfling, the Dwarrf, Elf and the Eastern.

Since i presume all of you already know a great deal about the warrior classes mentioned above and about the wizardly ones as well, i a am going to spend some more time describing the unusual ones.

But before, the author gives an ulterior insight (which a find cogent): if your dice rolls are meager, DO NOT throw away that character. The reason is simple: if everyone in the party had too much potency that would ruin the fun of the game which would turn into something other than what it is meant to be: a challenge between players and foes.

Going back to the character types, the author immediately informs us that the Barbarian type is modelled after the R.E. Howard's Conan character, (and that he has a little quantity of brain), whereas the halfling is the Hobbit as envisaged by Tolkien.

The Shield Amazon is the female Amazon (or, to cite another comparison, Eowyn of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). 

The Eastern character is modelled after the samurai. We are then told about the learning process the typical samurai went through historically, and the author reminds us that the samurai was also trained in combat in the water, because the lived in Japan, an island. 


In Castle Perilous each character has six levels (also called "fighting classes") which may be gained. To attain each of them the character is required to amass a specific amount of experience points (one thousand, so there are a total of 6000 xp a character can earn before reaching the highest level of play)

Each level comes with a denomination attached to it. For instance, the highest level for a samurai is that of Shogun, for the Barbarian that of Champion, for the Knight that of Palatine, etc.

The abilities a character possess are, in order: Background, Intelligence (which is also useful, in the game's words, "to remember mazes"(!), Stewardship (the degree of adherence to a Deity's tenets for a cleric), Strenght, Vigor (the same as Constitution in D&D), Agility, Personal Magnetism (the equivalent of Charisma score). For each of these attributes, the player rolls dice until a value between 24 and 36 is obtained. 24 is the minimum for an ability.


Here begins, in my humble opinion, the interesting aspect of this game and where it stands apart from other games of that era. Let me explain.

In this chapter, we learn, first of all, how experience points are gained.

Following there is a list of behaviours worthy of experience points. The one mentioned first is PARTICIPATION that a player brings to the game. Players are expected to actively play and not just stand aloof. They must bring Imagination to the table. I read this concept reiterated several times in the first part of the book and i must say i really appreciate it. 

Also, the cleverness of a player, the subduing of monsters (but see more on this later), and, for the magicians and the cleric character respectively, we must take into account the the imaginative use of the spell utilized and the numbers of hit points healed with an healing spell.

So far so good. This is a solid approach to me and one i would have liked to see more often expressed in games, past and present. What struck me most, as i said, is the frequent use of the word "imagination" in this book. It is pretty clear that the author conceives the fantasy game something more than hack and slash experience.

I cannot go into the details here, but at times there are entire paragraphs in the book where this idea is repeated and deepened.

Oddly enough, the next chapter is called "Experience points" and the things become even more intriguing because, despite the author has already explained how XP are gained, in this little "extra" section he adds four "basic" guidelines for assigning experience points, together with five "advanced" guidelines.

To begin with, players may get experience points by killing monsters but they SHOULD NOT do so. Yes, that is stated very clearly. Again, i won't go into details here (i urge anyone to buy a copy of the reprint of this game which is coming soon in order to savor all this), but the reason in a nutshell is that the heroes are after all the good guys in the game. Kill a monster on purpose with no reason and you will get no xp from that action.

Following this instruction there are other basic guidelines on how to assign experience points. They end by pointing out that after a specific amount of scenarios, the Marchwarden should have progressed to the next method of distributing XP.

The next method is the advanced method, and there is food for thought here.

There are five guidelines where in a very talkative manner the author explains the subtle art of assigning experience points. Again, i am impressed by the freshness he is able to inject in his game. He somehow eschews a framework purely mechanical opting for something lying in between, never forgetting to enhance the peculiar interpretative aspect of a fantasy role-playing experience. You will be amazed to learn that wearing an authentic costume at the table MAY BE something desirable as far as XP are concerned. 

Also remember that if you (the player character) knows something of value (or that may be put to use in the game by your character - for example, how to tie a rope) you could use that skill in the game while playing your character (a sort of knowledge transfer, so to speak).  

Last but not least, we are introduced to the concept of GAME SEGMENTS. This proves to be quite useful for a Game master, game segments being in a nutshell an arbitrary subdivision of the adventure in parts, with a chosen amount of difficulty ascribed to each, so that the Game master is able to distribute experience points in a coherent way. 


First of all,a brief note: the fact that in this game the arcane arts are called "Magicks": i find it hard to believe the absence of an influence on the part of a game such as Chivalry & Sorcery. I think it is plausible because C&S was published in 1977 in its first edition, (therefore three years before the appearance of Castle Perilous) and as everyone knows its authors were adamant on insisting that Magic should be called "Magick" instead, to preserve the real medieval flavor and the real conception of what enchantment and the like was.

This chapter is quite special because the author concocted a sort of real method for spellcasting, that is, a method which takes into account the active participation from the players at the table. Under these rules, the players playing the magicians have to recall a spell's characteristics for them to work properly. They must study their spells in order to make them work. Each spell has five characteristics: color, type (offensive, defensive, utilitarian), what physical thing must be done to activate it, what it looks like, what it does. Then the player must state or represent each of these characteristics in a certain amount of time. The Marchwarden decides if he has done it correctly. If not, the spell might not work properly or could missfire.

Is it bizarre? I don't think so, it's just a level of interpretation we are not used to anymore, in my humble opinion. After all, the immersive experience this game tries to recreate is evident not only in this particular way spells work but also in some particular behaviours acted out by the players (not the characters!) which can boost their xp progression. 

But casting spells is never an automatic process. Mesmerists must make a double check. The first to ascertain if the player "acted out" the spell in a correct way (as explained before), the second check to see if the spell works (any spell is a flow of energy in the Grand energy of the Universe...)

There are some original spells such as "The Golden Eye of Omicron"...very Clark Ashton Smith's like.


Every game has its unique aspects. In Castle Perilous i have found one in the way the damage is dealt with. But maybe it's just me. I stumbled upon a piece of information concerning the amount of damage which may be endured by a character before dying. The total hit points are calculated taking into account a couple of relevant characteristics PLUS the armor worn. That means that armor in a certain sense "absorbs" hits from enemies but its "thoughness" is somehow added to your current hit points total. Under this system armor is not just something used to deflect blows but an extension of your grand hit points total. In addition to all this, this final value is then MULTIPLIED by the level of the fighter class you are in. Therefore, using an AD&D framework as reference, we could say that your hit points total amounts to your strenght value + your constitution value + the kind of armor you are wearing + your current fighter level.

Being a 3rd level fighter class and having 12 and 14 as characteristics score and wearing full plate (40) you would end up with a (12+14+40)x3= 198 points of endurable damage.


Combat is approached through the use of some important tables, the main one is a table utilized to find out a particular number, called "THE HIT BRACKET NUMBER". The first time i saw this i mistakenly thought this was the number you needed to roll in order to hit an opponent, but i was proven wrong because this number is used to gauge how difficult is the strike you are aiming at the opponent and that's it. This is arrived at by analyzing which armor and shield are worn by your enemies, and in case of monsters, which covering they naturally possess as compared to a kind of armor (for example, the scales of a dragon skin are compared to full plate)

After having ascertained this, you pick up this number and in another table you will be able to find the numbers on 1D20 that will enable you to strike a sucessfull hit. I wrote numbers (in the plural) for a reason: the table will tell you just that, and not simply tell you that you need, say, a 18 or 17 on 1D20.

Following are charts dealing with weapon lenght differences between combatants, brief sections on how to properly use flasks of burning oil (this is very old-school, i mean to have half a page of a rule book explaining this!), how to manage hand-to-hand combat, how to calculate FATIGUE (when a character is fatigued, bad things happen, and the damage you used to score with your weapon may change), rules on surprise, on how to parry, and rules for broken or dropped weapons (this could take place in a fight).

Another point of "communion" between the real and the unreal: to get full recuperation, if a play session is interrupted and twenty four hours of REAL WORLD time elapses, then all damage taken by player characters are healed.


Any game has its drawbacks, and i find the monster list is the one in this game.

Everything else is superb, but i find the monster list somehow "weak", in the sense that it could have been expanded, being as it is a catalog of some very common creatures of myth (vampire, mummy, chimaera, etc etc), but all in all this does not detracts much from the game. Every monster has a statistic for how much damage it can receive and how much damage it can inflict.


On the chapter devoted to treasures, the author states clearly that players coming from other games should understand that treasure hoarding in Castle Perlous does NOT entitle one to accrue experience points. In the game, treasure is the main method of purchasing goods and especially armor (beginning players do not even have enough funds to buy leather armor and until reaching 5th or 6th fighter level it is unthinkable to own a full plate)


At the end of the book there are two sample adventures, the first is an underground adventure called "Ragnar's Terror". I am citing this not for the adventure content in itself (which may be skipped), but again for a concept which is expressed (albeit in an "hazy" way) at some point here. The author tells us how he usually invites players inside his dream world whilst dungeon mastering his sessions, and the description (which i won't replicate here in full) is just delicious and will probably remind you of how games were played in the good old days. I think this paragraph would be just too romantic for contemporary ears. Know simply that the author starts describing a scene for bringing players from the real world into the dreamworld world (using their imagination) and that is a flawless description (in my humble opinion) which works just perfectly (at the very least for this sample adventure, but i surmise that the core of the method could then be employed elsewhere without particular problems)

The rule book closes by saying "presently awaiting printing and production, are books II to X"....

I think these never saw the light of day and just remained in the author's imagination...what a pity.

We have arrived at the end of my personal retrospective on this unknown game published in 1980. 

To summarize my view, the two most striking features that i personally found in Castle Perilous are the bond (or "marriage") between REAL and UNREAL. I think i expressed examples of this several times above and it is certainly something i never found in any other rpg's of the past. You may like it or not. I regard it as something special and would try to implement this even if my players at first could find it outlandish.

The second thing i have liked is all the advice found scattered in the book, written in a colloquial way by the author. You can perceive the freshness of a mindset which belongs to a golden era that is perhaps lost for ever. One more reason in my opinion to go and grab a copy of this game. 

Precis Intermedia has been doing a tremendous job in resurrecting old school games, especially unknown and very rare ones.  Believe me, you won't be able to find a copy of the Castle Perilous boxed set on ebay. On Noble Knight's website iw was last stocked in 2010

Precis Intermedia is reissuing it very soon and i think any OSR fanatic should get a copy and see for himself what this game is about.



Alec Semicognito said...

Great to see a post from you! The author of Castle Perilous must have been a unique DM to play with; he had an unusual take on what play should be like and put it into his rules. Thanks for this.

Philosophical slumber said...

Thanks Alec. Yes, i think the same. It would be great to have him for an interview.

Anonymous said...

I've never personally viewed this product, but -

The table of digits is almost certainly for use in generating random numbers if you don't have dice handy (much like early versions of D&D Basic came with "chits" for drawing from a hat/bag).

Why is there a table and a mention of no dice, when dice are actually included? I can't be 100% certain, but I'd bet it was a holdover from the earlier (nonboxed) version of the rules, which presumably did not come with dice.


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