Games: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

This is my first RPG-related review. So, before I do this, a bit about myself: I’ve been running role playing games since 1982, starting with Holmes’ Basic Dungeons & Dragons and then the Moldvay/Cook editions before “graduating” to Advanced D&D in 1984. In my formative years I lived and breathed D&D (as I’m sure many of you did too) and, frankly, I played too much. I took a short hiatus in my senior high school year and picked up the gauntlet once again in university; running Call of Cthulhu on a bi-weekly basis with the occasional foray back into AD&D. My games in university were well-mixed in terms of gender – cis male being in the minority. (Perhaps making up for the somewhat homogeneous groups of my earlier DMing career.) After university I entered the “working world” and D&D fell to the wayside. I would occasionally run games for my university friends (who still remain so). In the early 2000’s I ran a year-long Second Edition AD&D campaign for my wife and brother. I eschewed the newly-christened Third Edition because, although it was a fine system, it didn’t look or feel like D&D to me.  Eventually, I was given the revised Third Edition (3.5) and it seemed a little more like the D&D I was familiar with, but not entirely and I eventually went back to Good Ol’ First Edition AD&D. I completely ignored Fourth Edition stuff. It was around that time that I discovered Original “White Box” D&D and started researching and collecting (first the PDFs and then actual print copies). It has taken me years to find all of it at affordable prices. Eventually, I went into music full time and had very little time for anything else. Two of my band mates wanted to play, so in 2013 I took AD&D on tour with us…after all those years, I was still in love with the game. In my latest bout of DMing, I’ve run thirty one gaming sessions since Sept 2014 (19 of which are an ongoing campaign, 7 single-session adventures, 1 convention and 4 from a short-lived campaign). If that doesn’t sound like a lot, keep in mind that I’m a Dad, a freelance writer, and a working musician; plus my gaming sessions are notoriously long, usually running five or more hours. In all this, I’m not counting the copious amounts of prep and research time and the sessions I’ve attended as a player. I am an Envoy of Dragonsfoot, a member of the Knights and Knaves Alehouse as well as odd74. I have owned (but not always kept) every iteration of the D&D game. In my collection I have such retro clones as Castles & Crusades (both hardcover and White Box), Swords and Wizardry (Core rules, hardcover), OSRIC (coil bound) and Dungeon World. I am telling you all this so that you may deem me qualified (or not qualified, if such a thing exists) to review my latest purchase: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (henceforth, DCC). Now, onward…(ps., if you are familiar with DCC you can skip to my final verdict below).

Firstly, DCC has some great prose. Author Joseph Goodman writes like a person who has just binge-read all of Appendix N. (Indeed, he later claims to have done just that before attempting to write DCC.) I wouldn’t go as far as to say it reads just like Gygax but it is definitely Gygax-tinged (with hues of Lieber, Moorcock and Howard) and it was the writing that initially hooked me. Like Gygax, Goodman has a penchant for diction, but he uses his deep vocabulary to make his writing as concise as possible while maintaining a pulp-atmosphere. Here’s a tasty example:

You owe allegiance to no man, aye, but a demon or god may hold sway upon your soul. You are a tight-lipped warlock studying ancient tomes, a witch corrupted by black magic, a demonologist trading soul-slivers for secrets, or an enchanter muttering chants in lost tongues. You are one of many foul mortals clutching at power. Will you succeed? Low-level wizards are indeed very powerful, but high-level wizards fear for their souls.

From the onset it is clear that DCC is written for experienced Judges (that’s DCC-speak for DM). Indeed this refreshing sentiment is explicitly stated several times in the text. DCC is, perhaps, also written for those players and Judges who have grown tired of Vanilla D&D. You know, Vanilla D&D: where predictable fantasy tropes roam predictable fantasy landscapes. Where goblins and orcs are, well, just goblins and orcs. Here in DCC we see a world where every spell has the potential to corrupt the body and soul of its caster, every doorway is a demented visage, plants are simply not to be trusted, every monsters is a one-of-a-kind mutant-variant, or an outsider-alien, or a demon, and every map looks like a stoner-doodle. If DCC is your first fantasy role playing game you might find it difficult to fathom; it’s like skipping alcohol and going straight for LSD. If DCC is your first fantasy role playing game, I envy you.

I should say, for a book that hooked me with its stylish prose the art really takes it to the next level. While both Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry make great strides towards getting back to the feel golden era RPG art (1977 – 1983, IMhO), DCC hits it out of the park. If you are a fan of the visuals in the original AD&D hardcovers, the Moldvay/Cook box sets and even some non-TSR stuff from the 70’s and 80’s, DCC will not disappoint. Much of the art looks very familiar because Goodman has managed to employ many of the very same artists from the golden era: Jeff Dee, Jeff Easley, David (Diesel) Laforce, Russ Nicholson, Jim Roslof and Erol Otus (my personal favourite). Even the contemporary artists do a great job of emulating much of the classic feel of golden era D&D, especially Peter Mullan (his work being very reminiscent of both Erol Otus and Moebius) and Stefan Poag (who does a great impression of D. A. Trampier, among others). It goes beyond paying homage and takes things to a new (sometimes comically-gruesome) level. Case and point, compare DCC’s Lokerimon the Lawful to AD&D’s Emerikol the Chaotic:

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Many pages in the DCC RPG look like the fringes of a metalhead’s high school notebook – and I mean that in the best-possible sense. The full-page illustration on page 59 (a port-city under siege by a massive kraken and an army of Kuo-Toa) literally looks like the planned culmination of my latest AD&D campaign…

Goodman definitely got the aesthetic correct; but what about the system? Straight away Goodman points out the major differences between DCC and both early and modern versions of D&D. Quite refreshingly, he assumes that the reader is knowledgeable in D&D. He spells it out: no feats, no prestige classes, no skill points, no attacks of opportunity, ascending AC, no separation between class and race, there are only three saves types, clerics turn more than just un-dead and much more (as we shall see).   We then move on to character generation and we are introduced to the first major innovation of DCC: the character creation funnel.

Much like OD&D and early-AD&D, characters in DCC do not start off as bona fide heroes. They must work their way up and will likely die trying. This is true in my own campaigns, but this philosophy does not bode well among younger/modern players. But I ask you, where is the challenge in a game that does not carry the sting of death? In a world where players are ever-impatient and accustomed to “balanced” games where hyper-heroic-1st-level characters can’t die, Goodman has come up with great solution: Players begin by playing up to four 0-level characters at once. These “mere peasants and yeomen,” who have no real skill (or class) to speak of, die by the score, but usually at least ONE (perhaps by some stroke of luck) will come out the other side (so to speak) and graduate to the first level. These survivors get to choose a class (i.e. cleric, warrior, wizard or thief) and may adopt the abilities of said class. This is brilliant because it trains modern player’s to accept character mortality (which really isn’t such a bad thing) by giving them what essentially amounts to multiple lives, while at the same time it truncates the otherwise lengthy process of finding “the one that sticks.” This funnel (I would have used the term, grind but that’s me) is dependent on one major DCC design-pillar: randomization.

It is through randomization that DCC achieves its game balance, or at least that’s what DCC claims. Does that really hold water? I don’t know, but I do know one thing: so much damage has been done to D&D in the name of game balance. Old school players know that, despite claims, O/AD&D (even by-the-book) was anything but balanced but that didn’t matter because in the hands of a good DM the system worked just fine. I for one gave up on the idea of mechanical game balance a long time ago – who needs it? Ultimately, it is up the DM (or Judge) to provide balance (or the veneer of balance) – but I digress. What this whole randomization equals game balance edict really achieves is a way to create characters that are not a bunch of MOMAs (min/maxed-overpowered-munchkin-avatars). DCC does this brilliantly (insidiously so) by enforcing such old-school tenets as rolling ability scores using 3d6 in order, by not allowing maximum hit points at 1st (or even zero) level, and my randomizing such things as previous occupation (reminiscent of AD&D’s secondary skills), race, and the contents of a 1st-level wizard’s spellbook. It does this by not separating class and race (a wonderful throwback to Moldvay’s 1981 basic rules) and keeping class selection (offered to humans only) limited to the four original archetypes.

Another DCC innovation is the dice chain. Like most d20 games, DCC uses the roll over the DC (aka, the arbitrarily assigned difficulty class) or roll over AC mechanic. But in addition to the normal plus/minus modifiers the system establishes major advantages and disadvantages through the dice chain, which is a sequence which runs as follows: d3, d4, d5, d6. d7. d8, d10, d12, d14, d16, d20, d24, d30. The norm is to roll a d20, but depending on circumstances a character’s roll may move “up” or “down” the dice chain. For example, a character using a weapon he/she is not trained in will move down to d16 on the dice chain. If they are not trained in their weapon and entangled in a web or net, they’re rolling a d14. A high-level warrior with two actions per round will roll a d20 for the first action and a d16 for the second. Imagine rolling a d14 to hit AC 13 … Oh, but what’s a d14 anyway? Well, Gamescience can sell you all these “funky” Zocchi dice (d30’s are relatively easy to find in stores) or you can easily simulate these dice using the standard platonic array. For example, a d3 is simply a d6 where a roll of 4 = 1, 5 = 2, and 6 = 3.  A d16 can be simulated using a d10 plus two different coloured d6’s (one d6 determines whether to add the other d6 to the d10; odd = add, even = don’t add). Experienced DMs have been doing this sort of thing for years.

The third innovation is not really a new idea except that it supplants one of the six original abilities. I’m talking about the luck stat. The concept of luck or “luck points” that you can burn to help out die rolls is not new (e.g. Top Secret, circa 1980). Many so-called modern games have utilized a similar system (sometimes referred to as plot points or hero points) – the idea of being that the points are limited and (generally) not recoverable under normal circumstances. In DCC, luck replaces the old wisdom stat. So we have six abilities (in this order): strength, agility (read dexterity), stamina (read constitution), personality (read charisma/wisdom/will), intelligence and luck. If a character gains an attribute bonus due to a high luck score, they get to randomly roll on a table to determine specifically what that bonus will apply to. This “lucky roll” bonus (or penalty in the case of bad luck) is an immutable character trait and may apply to anything, really. In game, Warriors, Dwarfs, Elves, Wizards and Clerics can semi-permanently burn luck points to improve die rolls. However, once they have burned some luck it is likely that they may never get it back. Furthermore, there may be situations where characters will have to “test their luck” (by rolling under their luck score on a d20) and being S.O.O.L is a distinct possibility. Hobbits and thieves can regenerate luck points – lucky them.

Speaking of lucky rolls, I like the way DCC handles skills. As a DM who is not accustomed to dealing with long lists of skills and prefers DM fiat as a positive tool (say, ‘yes’ or roll the dice) I find DCC’s skills-lite approach very refreshing. There is no list. A player must make a reasonable argument as to whether his/her character would be trained in a particular skill (based on class, prior occupation and experience).  If the Judge deems that they are trained in a skill they get to roll a d20 against an arbitrary DC; otherwise they roll a d10. I love that there’s a section titled, When Not to Make a Skill Check that pretty much sums up how I’ve always felt about skills:

Skill checks are designed for use when a system of abstract rules is necessary to adjudicate a situation. Only make a skill check when practical descriptions by the players will not suffice.

This is how I’ve been doing skills for years, really.

Even in OD&D I make use of the occasional attribute check/roll especially if the character is under duress: like jumping across a chasm to escape pursuit, or parsing some ancient text while the enemy is breaking down the exit door. The old “roll under your ability score on a d20” was first officially suggested in Moldvay’s Basic (1981) but over the years I’ve tried various things based on circumstances particular to the situation. (These include everything from “roll 6 on a 1d6+attribute bonus to custom matrices.) DCC makes use of the now-standard “roll over the DC on a d20” mechanic (where DC 5 is “child’s play”, and DC 20 is “superhuman”), which is OK but not really my cup of tea. The added element of the dice chain is a cool twist but can be a bit fiddly if you don’t have the special dice or if you’re not used to using a control die. Frankly, the recent “advantage/disadvantage” mechanic in D&D 5E seems like a much more elegant way of skewing probabilities without +/- modifiers. That said, their is something cool and wondrous about acquiring a whole new set of weird dice.

I’ve never been a fan of critical hits (and misses) but I use them because, well, players enjoy it. DCC makes excellent use of the venerable concept. The idea of something cool happening on a natural roll of 20 (or 1) is nothing new and dates back to the 1970’s. Even the “little brown books” hint at the idea (i.e. the rules for the Vorpal Blade in Supplement 1: Greyhawk). By the early 80’s most non-TSR medieval fantasy RPGs used critical hits in some form and a critical hit table for D&D (listing all the various nasty things that can happen, like decapitation) appeared in Dragon Magazine issue #39 (Good Hits and Bad Misses, by Carl Parlagreco). DCC takes this concept to a whole new level with some creative ideas and great prose-style. There are no less than five critical hit tables, organized by level and character type. As characters level up the critical hit results become more and more outrageous. Here’s an example of a low-level (zero level peasant) critical hit result:

Stunning crack to the forehead. Inflict +1d3 damage with this strike, and the foe falls to the bottom of the initiative count next round.

Here’s is an example of a high-level warrior critical hit result:

Strike crushes throat. Foe begins drowning in his own blood and expires in 1d4 rounds.

How cool is that?

Critical hits and fumbles may not be an innovation in itself, but how DCC applies the same concept to magic certainly is. In DCC magic is actually dangerous – outrageously so. This is something that was hinted at in O/AD&D, but never fully explored and certainly not codified. DCC makes use of a spell check roll and the results can vary from catastrophic failure, to mild success, to complete insanity. Because high level characters are more likely to roll higher spell checks, all spells are scaled for level by design. There is no need for “Monster summoning I,” “Monster summoning II,” and so on, there is simply only Monster Summoning. For example, a 4th-level wizard casts Monster Summoning and rolls a 19 (natural 15 + caster level). The result would be a two 1HD creatures or one 2HD creature that remain for one hour. A 10th-level wizard with the same roll would conjure his/her choice of two 2HD creatures or one 4 HD creature that remain twice as long. The most powerful wizards (capable of spell checks of 34 or higher) can summon  up to sixteen 1HD creatures! If this particular example seems banal, let’s take a look at the familiar Charm Person spell. A decent spell check roll will produce the well-known result of charming a single person. A very high-level wizard can do this:

The caster can influence the emotions of large groups of people, including crowds of public spectators or armies of angry warriors. The caster can attempt to charm  up to 100 people at once…Targets of equal to or less than the caster do not receive a save…

So, imagine charming a whole army of orcs, so that they will do your bidding, with one single spell! And (as we shall see later) a character’s spell level is not the only modifier you can add to a spell check roll.  Built into this is a sort of safety valve (in terms of game balance) and that’s critical failures. Like warriors attempting some fantastic killer blow there’s always a 5% chance for any character at any level to roll a natural 1 – critical failure!  And in the case of spells (and their results tables), the chance of a “misfire” is usually a little higher than 5%. A spell misfire, like a critical miss or fumble, means that something bad is going to happen. It’s usually something benign, akin to a pie in the face, but sometimes the results can be catastrophic for the character (or other party members). Every spell lists random misfire results that range in severity. For example, with Charm Person a misfire may result in the caster falling in love with the intended target(s)!

One thing to consider is that the base-chance for spellcheck success is a roll of 12 or better – so, on average, a first-level wizard only has a 35-40% chance of succeeding (assuming a decent intelligence score). That means most of the time a spell will just fizzle out without any effect. This could have unforeseen consequences for a Judge who designs their own adventures.

Besides having spells go off in one’s own face, there are three more elements that make arcane magic very dangerous: corruption, spell burn and patron taint. (Clerical magic has it’s own dangers, checks and balances, but for brevity we’ll concentrate only the wizard class here.)

Corruption is what it sounds like – a permanent physical or mental alteration as a consequence of spell failure. In a single stroke of genius, DCC manages to nicely codify the crazy/deformed/monstrous sorcerer fantasy trope. Upon reaching the highest of levels, there is a very good chance that the average wizard character (having cast many spells and given ample opportunity for critical failure) will no longer resemble a human being. For some, this horrifying transformation will be a big seller for playing the wizard class – I mean, your character literally devolves into some kind of chaotic-bestial-creature of great power, feared by neighbouring village folk, and perhaps the focus of some dark fireside legend told for generations to come. How cool is that?

Spellburn allows a caster to literally offer up their own body, mind or life-essence to some supernatural force in order to gain a spell check advantage. This may be as simple as shedding one’s own blood for a ritual (say, 3 points of stamina) or literally offering up a portion of one’s immortal soul (say, 3 points of intelligence and 3 points of personality). This Faustian concept of the price of power has a long tradition in literature and it’s great to see it codified so elegantly here. Not since Call of Cthulhu has there been a magic system so simultaneously powerful and detrimental to those who dare to dabble in the art. Unlike spending luck, spellburns are typically temporary but it takes time to “heal” one’s abilities back up to normal.

Another concept (tied into spellburn) are patrons of magic.  Again, this notion dates way back: what is Faust without his Mephistopheles, or Dante’s without Virgil’s ghost or the Salem witch without Satan (or Pan)? In DCC a wizard may choose to make a permanent pact with a supernatural outsider being (be it a deity, demon, devil, ghost, alien intelligence, or the minion of such beings) via the ritual spell Patron Bond. Such a pact allows the caster to gain access to powers and spells unique to devotees of that specific patron. Subsequently, the spell Invoke Patron allows a caster to consult (or bargain) with said being(s) in order to gain specific magical advantages. These exchanges are always of a “give and take” nature and, as one would expect, patrons tend to be fickle and self-serving.  By calling on a patron, a sorcerer always risks wrath or scorn (often by way of a critical failure on the spell check), the effect of this is a patron taint. A patron taint is a whole new set of corruptions unique to each patron. Almost always, the effect of a patron taint causes the sorcerer to take some physical or behavioural aspect of their patron; so that they may grow horns or their skin may change colour or texture, or they may grow extra limbs…since only a few of presumably many possible patrons are outlined in the rules, the Judge is encouraged to create their own. I like this line of thinking in an RPG – DCC expects inventive Judges.

Yes, I have glossed over many details here (including clerical magic, the mercurial nature of magic, the types of magic, as well as the general mechanics of the magic system). There’s just a lot of information and ideas to take in, and frankly I think if these concepts spark your interest I implore you to pick up the DCC RPG.  In a word, the DCC magic system is amazing. There is no need for a “sanity stat” when a sorcerer’s sins against nature manifest themselves as grotesque physical traits or mandatory and bizarre ritualistic behaviour. This is the sort of stuff that proponents of the old satanic panic would cite as “evidence” and it’s what sets DCC apart from other, more traditional systems. (To those who still believe in the D&D-devil worship connection, I have only two words: get real.)  Only about 125 spells are actually outlined in detail but the system openly encourages and sets the template for expansion and customization –  which is the very heart of old-school. Even if you don’t want to run a “new” system, it’s worth reading this book for the ideas alone (the hallmark of any good RPG product).

Speaking of ideas, I love DCC’s approach to monsters for therein lies the currency of a good adventure. The game assumes that Judge (and their players) are long-suffering RPG enthusiasts, seeking the wonder and mystery of “the good ol’ days.”  In short, monsters should be unique and mysterious and the DCC rules codify some methods to ensure this:

1) there are no generic or “repeatable” monsters. All monsters (including orcs, kobolds and goblins) should be unique and local variations on a theme. If you have a population of one monster species in an area, a population of the same type in another area should differ significantly. DCC aids the Judge in achieving this with some random charts.

2) a game world (or at least the region in which the PCs spend most of their career) should only contain one of each kind of mythical monster. For example, there should only be one pegasus, one basilisk, one manticore, etc. There is never “a monster” but rather “the monster.” This means that Judges/DMs will inevitably run out of monsters…so be it! The DCC game is about creating new creatures and not relying on the old tropes.

4) never name monsters by type, but rather, describe their appearance and behaviour. If they must be named (because they are special/important) use proper names, like “the horrid Explictica Defilus, demon-god of the forked tongue and all who dwell in the forbidden mire.”

The various iterations of D&D have always hinted at this “show don’t tell” approach to encounters, but in practice many DMs give this advice the brush off. DCC actually mandates it as necessary to the game. Is there a “monster compendium” in the back of the book? Yes. But that compendium (actually called, Cyclopedia of Creatures) is short, detailing some of the most basic monster types and a few interesting creations from the DCC universe. About this Cyclopedia, Goodman writes:

With the caveat that every monster should be unique, judges will still need some basic creatures to use as opponents for the heroes when they play this game. Moreover, classic monsters provide a benchmark by which the judge can guide his own creations.

Another interesting tact DCC employs to make encounters more unique are monster primes and elders. For every creature encountered there is a small chance that it may be one of these two sub-types. Primes are like platonic iterations: near-perfect specimens of any given type of monster, sent to earth from an eternal cosmic struggle between law and chaos. Primes are stronger and more effective than their more mundane counterparts. Likewise, elders are purebred specimens who have survived long and, despite being aged, still retain special qualities that grant them powers above and beyond the average.

Most significantly, regarding monsters, DCC attempts to put the wonder back into the game by breaking a long held RPG tenet that PCs and monsters are subject to the same rules and limitations.  A typical wizard PC might have a hard time casting fireball, but that may not be the case for the crazy Old Wizard who lives in the Dark Wood – he casts fireball to full effect, without flinching, every time. This might sound banal, but it’s a major stance. The Gygaxian notion of player/monster balance through equal adherence to the rules was sub-textually canonized in first edition AD&D. Every monster was given specific statistics in detail so that there was very little question about their abilities and their limits in terms of game mechanics. Gygax a wrote: “ALWAYS GIVE A MONSTER AN EVEN BREAK,” with respect to giving players an edge in order to keep the story moving, that home-spun combat rules should, “cut both ways” with regards to monsters and PCs while he also said “(e)ach and every monster must be played as closely to its stated characteristics as is possible.” (pages 110, 61 and 103 in the DMG, respectively). Although it’s not explicit in the rules, I know many AD&D DMs (found mostly on the Dragonsfoot Forums) who sit down and painstakingly flesh out their spellcasting and “big boss” monsters by-the-book. (Interestingly, this behaviour is less common among OD&D enthusiasts and the Odd74 group.) Conversely, in DCC the Judge is encouraged to give the monsters an edge. Monsters literally don’t “play by the rules,” so that players can never predict (or argue against) what they are truly up against. The leader of an otherwise normal band of orcs might be a stunted specimen (half the size of all the other orcs) with a glowing third eye who can use telekinesis to push heavy objects (and people) with unerring accuracy and cause large boulders to suddenly explode, spreading deadly shrapnel in all directions. The mutant orc might have powers unlike any listed in the rule book. It is not the Judge’s job to “justify” or rationalize such things – that’s the player’s job!

Another aspect of DCC I find enduring is the virtue it places upon a small world. Goodman states and reiterates that the medieval world consisted of small isolated pockets of “civilization” surrounded by vasts untamed wilderness.  The average peasant-serf never travelled more than a dozen miles from where they were born. Information about other neighbouring lands or the wide-world was hard to come by and often distorted or just plain wrong. Only barons, important merchants, and politicos had any business communicating with people in lands beyond their purview. Information travelled at the rate of foot – 3 miles per hour and no more than 24 miles per day (if they didn’t make stops along the way). Given these limitations, there is no need to design a massive fantasy world. Goodman actually recommends a setting of about 100 miles square – perfect for 6-mile hex maps on a standard sheet of hex paper. The age-old technique of “starting small” and slowly working outward, developing facts about the world at large as players explore it, is strongly in place here.

Unlike other OSR rule sets (or retroclones) DCC is not setting-agnostic. There is a world at work herein with named gods and patrons (and demons, outsiders, etc.). The world is named Áereth. Most DCC adventure modules claim to be setting-agnostic or world-generic but like the old TSR AD&D modules, which were clearly set in Greyhawk, many DCC modules are clearly set in Áereth but can be easily shoehorned into any setting that is influenced by (or based on) Appendix N literature.

Final verdict.

One of the things that struck me the most about DCC is how much it reads like my own A/OD&D campaigns. Some of the ideas I really like about DCC are things I’ve been doing (or working out) myself for years. DCC shows some interesting ways to implement these concepts. For this reason it’s proven to be a valuable resource.

For my next campaign, I’ve adapted the Traveller method of character generation in which the player generates number of potential characters and they “dice” their backstories pre-game. PCs typically enlist in a tour of duty (or some such) in a randomly determined occupation or service order to gain experience pre-game. This will inevitably produce a number of “duds” who die before they make it to the table and typically one character (starting above level 1, depending on the number of tours survived) with an interesting history, scars and skillset. This system, in many ways, serves the same purpose as the character funnel in DCC in that it allows a player to become attached to a single character who somehow survived “the grind,” against all odds, just to adopt an archetypal heroic stance (i.e. choose a class). (Incidentally, I also use the very stingy, roll 3d6 in order method of stats generation.) The DCC funnel is a cool idea, but it requires a session or two of actual play. This might be fun for some (and I can see the virtue of teaching young players that PC death is not all-that-bad) but it seems like the sort of experiment that might wear thin after several trials.

For a long time I wanted a truly Faustian magic system where magic is rare, difficult, powerful but also dangerous. I’ve had spells dramatically fail for NPCs, but I have never developed a “fair” way to have the same thing occur for PCs. Yes, AD&D spells like Cacodaemon, Gate, Contact Higher Plane and the various high-level summoning spells are wrought with dangers (if played correctly) but the idea that a spell as mundane as Magic Missile or Light could kill you and your companions is interesting indeed. As I’ve already hinted, I’ll be using the DCC magic system (or something like it) in my forthcoming games. The results tables (for spell effects, corruptions, and taints) can be adopted wholesale and easily hacked by any enterprising Judge/DM to suit their individual tastes.

Other ideas I had floating in my head before DCC came along include both patrons and luck. As mentioned earlier, in my latest O/AD&D games I added a luck stat (not rolled, but derived as the mean of all six regular stats). I allowed players to permanently burn their luck to help out rolls (I called it spending) and I had a system for testing a PC’s luck in dire situations that could have either binary or variable results (depending on the situation at hand). It was an easy mechanic to implement and it didn’t break the game. The idea of luck is not new and has been floating around since at least Tunnels & Trolls in the 70’s (same as the “double damage” on a natural 20 rule). In fact, the more I look at it, DCC seems like Goodman’s personal hack of either OD&D + bits of Greyhawk or “Classic” Moldvay/Cook D&D. The merging of class and race is certainly a throwback to Classic D&D (and some would claim OD&D).

Anyone who’s read Lovecraft or Moorcock knows that magic is granted by (and mixed in with the wants and desires of) outsider beings, be them demons, or Outer Gods or Old Ones. Historically, it was believed that witches and warlocks derived their “power” directly from Satan or some demon. I’ve always been a fan of this concept. (Especially when it comes to clerical magic, of which I make very little distinction from so-called “arcane magic” in my games).  Funny enough, without any prior knowledge of DCC, I also chose “patron” as the term for these outsider beings, so I was quite jazzed to see how another hacker-DM objectified their use. In my games the “damage” caused to magic users (especially clerics) via a patron is primarily mental (physical damage only occurring as a result of direct contact with a patron or its minion).  I’m surprised that DCC does not have a sanity stat (I use the old CoC mean of intellect and wisdom San stat) but then again with all the great patron taint ideas in this book a sanity stat might prove superfluous.

I do love the general look and feel of this rule set and the ideas around magic are great. I’m no fan of the D20-era “make up a DC so that everything can be resolved with a d20” mechanic but the DCC dice chain finds a way to mix up the dice a bit. The combat rules are very simple, maybe too simple – leaving a lot of “blank space” for the Judge/DM to modify the rules (and I would modify them). There’s a lot of table-indexing for the Judge when it comes to critical fumbles, critical hits and spell results, among many other tables, but a good screen and some time with the rules will surely cure that.** Even better,  I believe a good Judge will eventually just make this stuff up using the tables merely as good guidelines.  I’m not a fan of the DCC experience system, where experience is not granted for treasure, but rather only for overcoming (read surviving) encounters and avoiding hazards. I find the metrics not granular enough (it takes 10 xp to gain a level???). I would probably stick to standard AD&D experience methods where experience is primarily granted for loot and good role playing, followed by encounters/hazards survived. There is no real encumbrance system to speak of (which is fine in many people’s books, I’m sure) but I happen to like encumbrance and actually prefer the Classic/OD&D method of only adding up weapons and armour (but assigning a base-amount for all misc. gear) plus any coin found.

Overall, I’m not quite sure if I’m ready to plunge head-first into a straight DCC campaign (if such a thing exists) but given all the similarities between DCC and my very own hack of O/AD&D, I’m sure it will have a place at my table.

Fight on!

 

** Full disclosure: Since writing this review I am 6 sessions into the “new campaign” I mention here, where I am integrating some of DCC’s magic system into AD&D. I’ve since developed some new opinions about the DCC magic system. Look for a forthcoming retrospective (and campaign journal). 

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About centralmeaner

Born many years ago, Dean Marino is a bandleader, songwriter, record producer, guitarist, writer and sometime visual artist. He is the former co-owner of Chemical Sound Recording Studio and Echo Valley Recording Studio and fronts the band Papermaps. Dean is always busy.
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One Response to Games: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

  1. Mimir says:

    I wish my friends were more into this game. Most think it’s too brutal and old-school, while the one actually into old-school stuff thinks it doesn’t get the right mindset. He misses the point, I think.

    But me, I love it. It’s my favorite system – in theory, for in practice I haven’t gotten to try and actually play it, due to afore-mentioned troubles. But I’m writing a story heavily drawing from it.

    Good review, agreeing all around.

    Like

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