As some of you know, I've been spending lots of time on these three jewels lately. My developing reviews are still in progress, but I thought I would do a quick and dirty comparison of the three and why you might choose one over the others. Truthfully though I think all three of these works belong on every gamers bookshelf for a number of reasons.
Castles & Crusades: if you are looking for a rather faithful D&D experience I would strongly suggest C&C. In fact I would suggest it before any of the retro clones, and in some cases before the source material itself. Now, that's a seemingly irrational statement, but honestly finding original materials is a bit of a chore and unless you and all your players have the original works you are better off going with a currently supported system. For me, if you wanna play D&D then I would suggest C&C. I would also suggest C&C if you like fast and furious play where you can focus on the story instead of worrying about mechanics. C&C has all of the frequently played D&D type classes and races, and easily support expansion. The system is easy to learn and elegant. You can literally be up and running with a PC inside of 10 minutes. And if you're a GM in a hurry pretty much any AD&D compatible module will work, or C&C has plenty of excellent offerings to help you out. Abut the only thing that might hang older gamers up is the reliance on the d20 system and the attribute based Siege Engine. The system is very elegant and plays quickly and intuitively, but it is a bit different from the more complex methods of previous D&D incarnations.
Hackmaster Basic: I would recommend Hackmaster to experienced players who are looking for a challenge. Hackmaster stopped trying to replicate D&D when they dropped the WoTC licensing agreement. But what they have created instead is a combat system that begs even the most confident of players to watch your freakin' step! Combat in HM is deadly and more realistic than most RPGs. While still retaining a degree of its abstract nature, Hackmaster adds in a degree of deadliness that early D&D campaigns were famous for. And it does so with an elegance that transcends just upping the damage level and lowering hp level. You have to think in Hackmaster if you want to survive. Hackmaster is a gritty fantasy campaign where hero status must be hard earned. Hackmaster also drives character development more directly than many RPGs out there. In general RPGs leave the details of PC development alone, rarely enforce faithfullness to alignment, and ignore PC action in the campaign beyond numbers of monster deaths. Hackmaster, like no other game to date, requires characters to be as real as you or me. And that means in addition to all our foibles and weaknesses. We are who we are as much for them as for our strengths and talents. Hackmaster also has the honor mechanic that make characters answer for their actions in game. You can't just stab the beggar orphan or cuss out the barkeep without a comeuppance. And choose alignment carefully in Hackmaster because you will be expected to abide by your ethos. All of these things make Hackmaster an incredibly engaging and immersive game. I would recommend Hackmaster to any gamer that wants to step up their game and play a truly challenging and totally absorbing fantasy RPG. The setting and play of Hackmaster is so real, you'll be expecting goblins to meet you on your way to work the morning after last night's session, and leave you gutted behind the wheel.
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: I'm still getting a handle on this game. But I really like what I see thus far. If you are looking for a very close simulation of the swords & sorcery genre this is the game for you. Ever wanted to step into a weird dark fantasy world? This is the game for you. It doesn't aim at realism as much as it aims at dangerous weirdness. The mechanics of the game are simple and streamlined, somewhat close to 0e play, but with some very interesting twists. First you don't just memorize spells and shoot them off like your pulling a trigger. Magic in DCC is as dangerous and deadly as combat itself. If you expect any degree of power in DCC you must pay the price, and for magical power that means pacts with evil and insidious beings from the beyond. And the danger isn't just there for wizards. The whole game has a core mechanic related to criticals and fumbles that could spell death with a single swing, no matter how powerful you think you are. One thing you can count in in DCC RPG is that you'll run into spectacular effects. They just may not be in your favor. DCC is the perfect RPG for players looking for more than a twist of the fantastic and bizarre in their roleplaying. It is old school in play style: quick and fast and deadly. If you ever thought you could really step into a fantasy world think again, it's a lot stranger and deadlier than you ever imagined.
In summary these games are my top three and have been for some time now. No matter how much I read and peruse new clones, check up on WoTC's latest endeavors or bathe in the fond waters of nostalgia I always come back to these three games. They are, in my opinion the future of the gaming industry, as I've mentioned before. What they are doing they are doing with style and with quality. So which one do you play?
For classic high fantasy: Castles & Crusades
For gritty, low fantasy, (the kind I think about when contemplating what it would be like if I traveled to a fantasy world): Hackmaster
For fantastic, weird fantasy like the Swords & Sorcery of old: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
And as you can see, all three games give a decidedly different flavour of play. They do what they do very well however. And for that reason I suggest having all three on your bookshelf. If you were to ask me which one would be my goto game it would be hard to choose. What that comes down to is the kind of game you like to play. And in case it hasn't been made clear before, for me that is Hackmaster. I am still holding my breath for Advanced Hackmaster to fix the few sniggly items that hang up play now and then in the basic version. But I know that KenzerCo won't let me down. Frankly most of the players I play with prefer High Fantasy, so C&C is popular with them. but given the choice I would run Hackmaster every time. Let me be quick to add all threesystems are on my bookshelves and I will buy any offering that each game presents.