First of all, this review is for the Beta Rules
of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC). These are playtest rules released by Goodman Games for free as a digital product. The final rules that are published will likely be different.
I playtested the rules as one of four players in a game that is not officially connected to Goodman in any way. Our GM thought the rules looked neat and asked if we wanted to try them. I'm glad we did.
DCC is garnering a lot of interest from old school 1st edition lovers, but that's not why I enjoyed it. I started playing D&D in 2005 and have little experience with 1st ed AD&D or its clones. I liked DCC because it gave a very strong Swords & Sorcery feel that I haven't seen matched in those clones or in any other game. At the same time, I question how playable it would be for a long-term campaign.
THE DIGITAL THING
DCC features good production values with appropriate artwork. The art is really worth flipping through the pdf; it takes its cue from the illustrations in early D&D products, but with much better quality. Images are usually full of little details and facial expressions that add humor, emotion and surprise to the pages of the product.
If you're a fan of lush, cinematic artwork as seen in Pathfinder or D&D 4e, the artwork in DCC will disappoint. But I feel it is highly genre-appropriate and does a terrific job of catching the eye and sparking the imagination while building an old school vibe around the pages.
The product is well laid out. The chapters follow a logical progression and the information is presented clearly. There is no extraneous language here so it's easy to find and quickly understand any given rule.
I did not read the entire book, but the parts I did read seemed error-free and well written.
My only gripe with the way information is presented is the Spells section. Each spell has a wide variety of possible results, which is an ingenious mechanism; but this means each spell is also a full one-page entry with a lot of "wall of text" going on. Many possible effects start off with "as above, plus..." so even when you find the effect you want you have to start reading the options above it in reverse order. I would like it if the effects were written more concisely, and the relevant information (duration, etc.) was included in each effect line instead of "as above..." half the time.
Still, for a pdf beta it's a fine product to look at and it gives me hope that the final published product will be even smoother.
THINGS YOU SHOULDN'T WORRY ABOUT
Before I go into detail on the rules it's worth mentioning two big gripes a lot of people have had with the system, that you really shouldn't worry about. They are:
1. Percentile thief skills. Goodman did a nice job of converting an old school feel to a solid unified mechanic, using d20.... except for thief skills. To sneak, climb or pick locks the thief is still using an egregious percentile "roll under" mechanic. It's jarring and it's one of those few things that even grognards agree was wisely cut from revised systems like Castles and Crusades.
Why shouldn't you worry about it? Because everybody and his animal companion has already complained, and there's every sign that Goodman will switch it to a d20 mechanic for the final release.
2. Weird dice. Goodman chose to include a variety on unorthodox dice in the ruleset, notably the d7, d24 and d30. A lot of people are up in arms that this is a money-grabbing gimmick and it's reprehensible. Well boo hoo.
Why you shouldn't worry: Because spending an extra $6 to pick up a handful of new dice isn't a problem, it's every gamer's idea of a fun Saturday afternoon. If you really don't want to invest in new dice, use an online roller for free or heck, buy the new dice but keep using the free beta rules and you'll come out ahead on the deal.
Okay. With that out of the way...
WHERE IT REALLY SHINES: THE RULES
The meat of the system is an innovative recreation of Conan and classic Swords & Sorcery, with a nod to AD&D but a whole lot of great new ideas.
By a "nod to AD&D" I mean you'll see all your standard terms like AC, hp, etc. and the classic classes of Dwarf, Elf, Thief, Wizard, etc. A standard party is expected to be a cleric, wizard, warrior and thief with maybe an elf or halfling thrown in instead of one of those four.
However, the rules are tailored for each class to do things AD&D never managed. For starters: the fighter is the best at all levels.
Fighters get huge stacks of bonuses including a whole extra die added to both their Attack and Damage rolls. They do this every time they roll, no limit; and they get to use the best crit table of any class, with a decent chance of insta-kill on a crit. (Our fighter dropped a creature with over 60 hp remaining with a blow that otherwise would have dealt 10 or so points of damage.)
Fighters also have the most stamina of any class - not Stamina the stat (=Constitution), but the ability to keep plugging away through the dungeon through more and more fights. Even at 5th level, the highest level supported by the beta, the fighter was still the most effective member of the party.
On a similarly spectacular note, magic is far more flexible than AD&D's version while becoming far more variable and supernatural-feeling than in any ruleset I've seen. I'll use the wizard as an example.
Wizards know only a small number of spells, but they can cast as many of those as they see fit. Each time they cast they make a Casting Check, and the result determines the effect. On an 11 or lower the spell fails, and on a natural 1 there are side effects that range from humorous to highly threatening.
On a 12 or higher, the roll is compared to the table in the spell entry to determine the effect. For example, casting Spider Climb can result in being able to climb a wall (only) using all four bare hands & bare feet; on a higher roll, only feet are needed, and shoes can be worn; on a very high roll you can walk completely upside-down on ceilings like it's nothing.
The effects for other spells feature variables in damage, number of targets, duration, and the obedience level of summoned creatures.
In addition to the failure chance and variable effects, most spells can only be cast once per day. Altogether, a wizard feels like a character with a formidable tool belt and a lot of thinking to do about how best to use it. To me, this stays highly true to the Swords & Sorcery genre. It creates a lot of limits on the wizard without leaving the player feeling ineffective.
A similar system is in place for the Cleric, except that the Cleric can cast spells more than once and risks angering his deity. Each time the Cleric successfully casts a spell--any spell--he takes a cumulative -1 penalty to his casting roll. As the session wears on, he has lower and lower chances of successfully getting any more favors from his god and increasingly high chances of being actively smitten.
The thief is the only class out of the main four that didn't receive much overhaul from AD&D. Thieves have conditional backstab damage and the ability to find and disarm traps, pick locks, sneak around, and infiltrate places. Thieves do get one shiny new toy, which has to do with Luck.
Every character has a Luck score and any character can burn Luck to help succeed on a roll. Let's say your Luck score is 12 and you miss an important roll. The DC was 15 and you rolled a 13. If you want, you can burn two points of luck, lowering your Luck score to 10 and succeeding on the roll.
For most characters, this loss of luck is permanent. The Thief refreshes his lost luck every night. Yup.
The system also offers a unique character creation system. The default method is for each player to create four 0-level characters (a process that only takes a few minutes). These characters have a randomly rolled occupation such as ditch digger, caravan guard or outlaw. They start with a couple worthless items based on their occupation and the whole team of sixteen 0-level PCs heads into the first dungeon to meet gruesome deaths.
This system sounds brutal but it's hilarious fun. The theory is that about 25% of characters will survive the "funnel" and graduate to first level. In reality, nearly 50% of our characters survived (some with permanent scars) which gave us the option of choosing which sort of character wanted. For instance, I had a character with a decent Int score who survived and another with a decent Str score, so I could've played a warrior or wizard if I wanted.
We played through the intro 0-level dungeon to try out the funnel and it was great. It shone as an example of ingenuity not just in achieving the desired lethal, old-school feel, but in giving the players something truly exciting to try with no way of predicting who would make it out.
Last, it should be mentioned that the rules also made some standard good choices on what to change from classic D&D: AC is ascending (high AC is good), all types of rolls use a unified dice mechanic (mostly), and horrible deaths allow saving throws (usually). There were a few things in AD&D that were just plain bad ideas and Goodman has wisely taken most of them out.
I do have a few gripes about DCC and they have to do with long-term playability.
Playability often revolves around balance but that's not what I'm worried about here. DCC isn't quite balanced: warriors simply are the strongest, most reliable party members who will always get the spotlight in a fight. That's as it should be for Swords & Sorcery. It was really refreshing to look at the fighter as my protector and best friend (I played the wizard) rather than looking down on him for getting in my way (hello, 3.5).
Generally, if a system is unbalanced by design, the rules have to make up for it by giving everyone shiny toys to play with. As long as everyone has a chance to shine doing their own special thing once a session, no one really cares that the warrior gets to do it a little more often.
And that's really where the playability issue comes in. I think Goodman's magic mechanic is really intriguing and fun, but the fun would wear off quickly. It's really aimed to please people aesthetically (Wow, look at how crazy magic is! I love the flavor!) rather than creating fun moments for players.
This affects the two magic users differently. As the wizard, I felt I had a lot of opportunities to shine, but I knew my days were numbered. It didn't impact my fun because we played a one-shot; I'll never have to worry about the day when my wizard has goat legs, permanent pustules, a penalty to three stats, 0 luck, and pacts with two different demons who demand sacrifice.
But if I played my character for more than two or three sessions, I would follow a steady downward trajectory. Natural 1s are inevitable, and their (often irreversible) effects accrue over sessions. The only way to buy off these effects by the rules is to barter with supernatural patrons, often requiring the sacrifice of body parts, ability scores, piles of gold, or magic items. The arc of a wizard is an inevitable descent into Gollum-hood, and I question whether gaining levels will be enough to offset that long-term.
The cleric has it worse because their downward spiral happens every session. Every spell cast increases the penalty on casting more spells. The likelihood of upsetting a deity and incurring their ire is high. Since healing requires spells, this puts a huge burden on the cleric, whose entire party role seems to be "take spankings from God so the party can keep going." This is really unfortunate.
I think the best thing Goodman could do on this front is remove the cumulative penalty for clerics. Or if that's just way too generous for an old school game, a good bet would be to make healing a special class ability, not a spell, so the cleric can at least heal people x times without adding to that penalty.
The thief has a whole different set of problems, which is to say they don't have any real chance to shine at all. Wizards and clerics can shine if they're willing to take a huge risk, but thieves spend most of the game feeling like they should've been a fighter. Initially, the draw of the Thief's luck ability made me think it would be the most fun class (it's at least versatile), but our Thief's player pointed out that in the absence of flanking rules, all he could really do is hope to get backstab on the first round and then contribute very little for the rest of the encounter.
These problems mean that the fun of a DCC session is wrapped up in whatever devil-may-care hijinx you stir up. You don't really expect your character to survive and be heroic (except maybe fighters), so you try to see how much stuff you can grab, eat, drink, steal, activate or break along the way. It's hard to wave an ongoing, compelling narrative around characters you don't care about. I suspect that a lengthy DCC campaign would lose its gleam. A three-session adventure is about the most I could stand unless there was some way for me to feel invested in my character.
I gave DCC a 4 for Style because overall it is well laid out, it's an attractive product and Goodman did the seemingly impossible by creating B&W old school ink drawings that somehow look brilliant and just grab your attention.
I gave it a 4 for Substance because, despite issues with long-term playability, it introduces multiple hugely innovative mechanics to a genre that sometimes seems played out. The mechanics are truly captivating the first time you see them at the table.
Overall I recommend trying out DCC RPG Beta. It will put a smile on your face whether you try out the meatgrinder "funnel" of 0-level characters or leap right into the inevitable slow demises of your higher level characters. It gives a truly Conanesque feel with a hint of supernatural horror thrown in the background. I hope that Goodman will shore up the sustainability of casters and give the Thief some new tricks in the final version, but it's a fun play even as-is.