Introduction: Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Beta
There’s been a resurgence of interest in a “Back to Basics” approach for RPGs in the last several years, and nowhere is that clearer than in the The Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (BETA version). How would DCC RPG be unlike the other “retroclones” on the market? The authors explains that DCC RPG has the goal of evoking the spirit of Appendix N in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide—the recommended reading suggested by Gygax: The gritty weird sword & sorcery stories of Robert Howard, Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance and so on… in addition to, and perhaps somewhat eclipsing the influence of JRR Tolkien, the patron saint of high fantasy.
This conviction is evident in everything about the game: the introduction, the flavor text, the content of the rules, classes and assumptions about gameplay, setting and characters. While other retroclones are often straight-ahead re-skins of the classic rulesets (pick one), the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG aims to present a ruleset that’s truer to the inspiration than the original! And it aims to package those rules more dramatically and originally than those that have come before.
Note on the Beta:
The Beta rules have been issued by the Goodman Games for playtest, along with two short modules for playtest purposes, distributed on Free RPG day 2011. These are not the finished rules—they are neither completely finalized as a ruleset, nor are they anywhere near complete. So it’s important that this review is treated as a review of the BETA rules only, not the finished product.
Note on the playtest:
I GM’d a playtest with the BETA rules and free modules on July 9, 2011. This review will cover the basics of the game I was able to absorb and my experience and impressions of the game from my playtest sessions.
One of the players from that session posted his playtest review already:
I’m going to avoid hitting some of the same things he describes for efficiency’s sake, and respond to some of his points where I want to offer a counterpoint.
The BETA rules are available as a free .pdf. I’d put the .pdf quality as standard, though I’m no expert with such things. The first thing that I noticed however is the art—the layout and the art are perhaps the best part of the package. The art has been perfectly selected to evoke the 60s /70s Weird / S&S vibe, with a host of oldschool artists contributing. The layouts contribute to a vibe not unlike the original AD&D books, with even some little cartoon sidebars. If your tastes run to the oldschool flavor of art, go download the free rules and feast your eyes! If you love such stuff, you may well want to purchase the finished product for the art alone.
I’ll cover these quickly. Please bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list and I absorb rules slowly… I’m mainly pulling out the main bits that stand out in comparison to traditional or more recent systems.
The core stats remain, with Personality representing a combination of Wisdom and Charisma. Luck is the main difference in the core statistics, with the Luck ability modifying a randomly determined roll/trait for the character (as a bonus or penalty) from the outset. Luck can be burned to add bonuses for critical situations but this is permanent except for the thief, who regains luck nightly.
The Classes (& Races):
I won’t rehash my colleague’s description of the classes (again, see the link above). But I do want to offer a viewpoint that the game is not quite as heavily balanced toward the Warrior as it might seem. Yes, they are certainly more powerful than fighters in earlier editions, and also compared to retclones like C&C. Having said that, the Beta rules only provide first level spells so there are conceivably more powerful spells that our spell-slingers would have access to under the complete rules.
Just as important, we will of course slightly grind down the edges of the system over time. Just as AD&D was never played (and in some cases, thanks to Gygaxian prose, never even understood), as written, a long-term campaign would find some ways to facilitate the right level of spell recovery through some sensible form of sacrifice, patron-bargaining, etc. I didn’t yet have the complete mastery of the rules to do that at our session as the GM, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t be done.
Having said that, it’s no mistake that Clerical magic carries the risk of Disapproval and that Wizardly magic has the risk of Corruption. Patrons will make wizards quest for spells and aid. Gods will impose unpleasant tasks on their followers, perhaps even whimsically. This is true to the nature of the inspirational literature. But also, this is rife with opportunity for plot hooks. There will never be the need to have a generic old man in the bar with a map to the orc hideout, because characters’ needs will propel them: Find more spells, regain their abilities, gain the approval of their gods or patrons, pay off their debts. This is the perfect mechanism for character-driven stories.
One dissatisfier for some will probably be that Elf, Dwarf and Halfling are their own distinct classes. This is not my first preference, but the classes themselves are done well with individual traits unique to the game (Dwarves can smell gold!) as well as similarities to prime classes—Dwarf to Warrior, Elf to Wizard, Halfling to Thief.
Thieves: The thief is more than ever a skill monkey in this game without skills. He has an array of thief skills, with a slight variety in chances based on alignment. (Chaotic thieves burgle more than lawful thieves). The luck modifier contributes extra dice to skill rolls and most importantly, thieves are the class that can burn luck points on a temporary basis to enhance skill rolls. They are hardly powerful, and not the “striker-rogues” of later editions, but this in my eyes increases their reliance on wits and luck—they will need to have very resourceful players to be effective, but when they do, they will have a high degree of success at their chosen tasks.
To represent the planning that goes into those all-important backstabs and strikes, I do think that they should roll on the highest critical table for those attacks, just as assassins were able to do very lethal things with carefully planned attacks in AD&D.
I would also allow thieves to burn temporary luck to aid their general skill rolls and even saving throws, to emphasize the important role that quick wits and luck play for these characters.
Mighty Deeds of Arms: One great item is the addition of a mechanic that helps Fighters do feat-like stuff. This really helps the fighter shine in class-specific ways, the ways that Thieves, Wizards and Clerics have traditionally.
Generally D&D-like, there are minor tweaks to weapons. Critical and fumble tables give an almost Rolemaster-ish feel to the game. Combat will be familiar but more random and more deadly. Crit tables scale up for higher level and more proficient classes. Characters at higher levels get two attacks and may have different dice to roll on, a lower die for the second action /spell /attack.
Spells are discussed in the other playtest review in a little more detail. I’ll move on to discuss the adventures and experience. A couple things to note:
Every spell cast has a certain amount of risk involved. On a roll of natural 1, Clerics risk Disapproval, which could result in the command to sacrifice property or temporary penalties. Similarly, Wizards risk far worse fates, such as mutation and ability loss when their spells go awry. Since every spell has a 5% chance of producing a nasty result, it may temper a Wizard’s willingness to cast spells and make magic a little more “special” and “rare” in the game. It will also make spellcasting a nasty and dangerous business, almost certain to eventually result in an unpleasant fate. This is not to everyone’s taste, and Goodman Games may be limiting their target audience somewhat. Having said that, the true genre flavor is what separates them from similar retroclones and may also win them many passionate customers. I am no marketing expert so I leave this choice to the pro’s. For my sake, it’s a big plus.
Also, if one wanted to somewhat dull the blade on the Corruption, it would be easy to houserule it and allow the caster a save, or a similar mechanic, to make it slightly less random and likely to occur.
Character Creation: “The Funnel” in play
This is one of the most extreme examples of oldschool mentality. The rules advise a straight 3d6 roll in true AD&D puritan tradition. Not only that, but the rules advise the players to start as 0 level characters—4-5 to a player. These peasants, beggars and tradesmen crash like a wave on the rocks of 1-2 starting adventures, leaving only a few resourceful & hardy adventurers alive. This is called “the funnel method” and is pretty unique to game that comes from a tradition that at one point was presumed to have some serious threat of mortality for player characters.
We playtested this method of creation and play in the short module “The Portal Under the Stars” which was distributed on Free RPG day 2011.
In a nutshell, we had a blast. It was wacky and funny and we all enjoyed some spectacular deaths, some heroic and meaningful, others simply toss-offs (yes, the first person to die was a peasant named “Kenny”). The module was perfectly written to be lethal but to allow reasonably smart players a chance to have 10-50% survivors. I was a little conservative with the automoton-type monsters and we ended up with about 40% survival rate.
Second adventure: We played the second Free RPG day adventure, “The Infernal Crucible of Sezrekan the Mad” with four 5th level characters: A Warrior, a Wizard, a Cleric and a Thief. (By the way, I love how they are Thieves again, not Rogues.)
Here we were a little hampered by the fact we didn’t know the rules that well. Partly this was probably my fault for not coaching the players more on the aspects of each class, which are pretty unique. Since we were running both adventures in one 6 hour gaming session, I was being pretty militant about keeping on-track, to the detriment of detailed rules coaching. This lack of knowledge didn’t matter much in 0-level play, but did inhibit us a little in the higher level stuff—probably made some of the characters, particularly the cleric and thief less effective.
That aside, the module was terrific—very fun and flavorful and also challenging, interesting though brief, with allowances for some good character interaction.
As my player noted in his playtest review, a lucky critical shot killed the main villain after a few rounds of mutual whiffing.
This brings up what I think is the main point of DCC RPG and perhaps its core differentiator as a system: Intense randomness.
In the DCC RPG, many mechanics are intensely randomized. Criticals can vary wildly, a bad fumble can have disastrous consequences. Wizards roll to determine permanent side-effects to modify spell use when they learn a new spell (how flavorful is that!!) Every cleric spell risks disapproval, every wizard spell risks corruption.
Sure, luck is a factor, but over time, luck will run out, and when the luck score dwindles, characters will have increasing penalties on rolls to which it applies.
It seems a given that over time, your luck will run out. I think over time the game would have an almost Cthulhu-esque feel—is this the session where my luck gives out? Where my bond with my patron cracks? Where my bank of god-power runs dry at the critical moment? This tension will be built into the game and this will be far more challenging than the rote boring resource management practiced in D&D-derived games ( “Hey, the mage is out of spells, let’s camp or get back to HQ”).
Overall, the game is grim. Your time may very well be short. Every adventure is truly unpredictable and truly dangerous. Some players won’t like trying to build long-term characters in a world of truly intense randomness and danger. Others will relish it, and take rightful pride in the survival of those characters that achieve high level—and they’ll also thank their lucky stars.
Speaking of Intense Randomness: Funky Dice
A lot has been made of the funky dice. (d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, d30) I think in a six hours and two adventures, we used the non-traditional dice perhaps 10-20 times between GM and four players. As GM, I supplied two sets for ready use, and another player had bought one, but one set probably would have been enough. Some classes get special extra “action dice” which tend to be the funky ones, so it might be nice to have a set for general use and one to supply characters as needed.
Having said that, if you’ve been playing D&D as long as I have (30+ years), you long ago learned how to randomize those ranges without much fuss. (As my fellow playtester mentioned in the linked review above, there are free rolling apps, web resources and cheat-sheets on how to fake ‘em too).
DCC RPG is a flavorful game that aims to bring the oldschool movement to another level of production quality and genre-flavored design. It succeeds. Some will find it perhaps too true to its mission, and the way it casts off the assumptions of post-1982 D&D. I found it refreshingly true to the roots of oldschool games and the sword & sorcery genre. It may not appeal to all gamers, but I think it will have a passionate core audience.
Overall, I rate the game a 4 for Substance-- only missing a 5 because of some icky stuff like percentile rolls for thieves’ skills and some confusing writing in some of the class descriptions (particularly the thief and his luck rolls, IMO).
For the Style, it’s unquestionably a 5 in my book. If the Beta looks this good, I have no doubt the finished product will be splendid and literally worth owning to look at.