Like most of you, I have been hearing about DCC RPG for years now. And like many of you, I don’t really know anything about it. The game has steadily grown in popularity and there has been an ever-quickening stream of DCC adventure modules appearing on the market. It’s been long enough. It’s time I took a look.
Return to the glory days of fantasy with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Adventure as 1974 intended you to, with modern rules grounded in the origins of sword & sorcery.
— Goodman Games
From the moment I opened the PDF, I can honestly say that I felt swept back to 1974. The artwork, the layout, the overall presentation really felt like something from the old magazines you found in a hobby shop back in the 70’s. There was a wave of nostalgia that I didn’t anticipate. I have to say that it was pretty wonderful. I didn’t expect to ever again recapture that feeling I had back in the early days, when I first discovered fantasy role-playing games.
The artwork is greatly responsible for the overall feeling that emanates from the book. It is very reminiscent of early RPGs. In fact, I think it takes me even further back than that, to the psychedelic-influenced artwork of the 60s. Many of the scenes are crazy and chaotic, encapsulating the backdrop of the adventures, full of demons and devils and all sorts of indescribable monstrosities, not just a portrait of the adventurers themselves.
Like most from the early days of FRPGs, I am a fan of the early art, especially B&W art. Most newer books are glossy and colorful, technically good, but somehow falling short in my eyes. Older B&W artwork does something for me that newer artwork just can’t reach. The artists involved with DCC capture that feeling with a vengeance. With greats like Jeff Dee and Erol Otis in their midst, it’s not hard to see why.
All in all, there are literally scores of full-page illustrations (60 if I counted correctly), at least that many half-page images, and countless smaller ones, created by a team of 19 talented artists. The amazing artwork in this book was the greatest unexpected treat of all, and makes the physical book worth the cost all by itself. I am in awe that Goodman Games went above and beyond to provide us with such a wonderful addition to a rulebook. Many probably won’t appreciate what this does for a book, but imo the right artwork sets the mood and conveys the intent behind the rules, in a way that words alone can’t express.
You’re No Hero
You’re no hero.
You’re an adventurer:
a tight-lipped warlock guarding long-dead secrets.
You seek gold and glory,
winning it with sword and spell,
caked in the blood and filth of the weak,
the dark, the demons, and the vanquished.
There are treasures to be won deep
underneath, and you shall have them…
— Goodman Games
I once said that in my game, “characters are just people striving to succeed, while in newer games characters are heroes pre-destined to become gods”.
I don’t like the newer approach, and apparently neither do the people at Goodman Games. When I imagine myself in a fantasy world, I am an apprentice, or peasant, or simply a homeless vagabond, unhappy with my lot in life. Adventuring is a desperate attempt by the down-trodden to better themselves, not a whim of the well-trained, well-geared, sons of nobles, looking for some diversion. DCC seems to share my vision of what an adventurer is, and what it must be that drives him.
So What Is DCC?
Dungeon Crawl Classics is a dark, gritty RPG with a very old school feel. It uses race-as-class, 3d6-in-order, and a bunch of crazy new dice. Although the genre is familiar, so much of the game is new and unexpected. I haven’t had this much fun reading a rulebook since I opened my Holmes boxed set. It is really refreshing to have no idea what is coming up and that feeling of amazement when you discover a completely new approach to something that you had never seen or thought of before. If you can’t tell, I’m just a little bit excited about this game!
In this review, I don’t want to go heavily into the mechanics (Be assured that I will cover many of them in future posts). But let me at least cover the basics.
Race as Class
No game claiming to allow you to “adventure like it’s 1974” could use anything other than race-as-class. It is a time-honored monument to early gaming and a necessary core tenet to such a game. I would have been disappointed had they not embraced it.
For those unfamiliar with the term, race-as-class means that, for non-humans, their race is their class. Humans may still choose to be a warrior, thief, cleric, or wizard. But dwarves, halflings, and elves are simply dwarves, halflings, and elves, each with their own unique talents.
This may seem odd to those familiar with other games, where abilities are generated with 4d6 drop lowest. But in the olden days, abilities were generated by rolling 3d6 for each ability in order (no assigning scores). I applaud this return to the old ways. But for those who are a bit apprehensive, let me say that DCC has created something very unique, called funnels (see hereafter), that somewhat mitigates any issues you may have with this approach.
The standard Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Chr have been replaced with: Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personality, Intelligence, and Luck. Note that most of these are simply new names for the same things. The only difference is that Wisdom has been dropped in favor of a new ability: Luck. At first glance, I assumed that luck would simply be a modifier to certain rolls. As it turns out, luck is far bigger, and far more unusual, than I could have imagined. It warrants more than a simple paragraph under abilities and therefore I’m going to leave it for a future post all by itself. Let me say though that luck is awesome. Once you get your head around it, it becomes an amazing addition to the game.
Ability score modifiers are, as they were in the early days, non-linear:
This is an absolutely brilliant idea!
- Funnels create a very believable and reasonable account for a character’s initiation into the adventuring life.
- Funnels present an amazingly simple introduction for non-gamers into the world of fantasy role-playing games.
- Funnels offer a very streamlined game for novice DMs, allowing them to run a game with virtually no prior experience or detailed knowledge of the game; simple common sense will see them through.
The basic premise is that a group of players each create a number of zero-level characters (three or four is recommended). This is done by rolling abilities and an occupation. That’s it! Each occupation includes basic training with some sort of weapon, be it a traditional weapon (dagger, axe, etc.) or a simple club or farming implement.
There are no skills, feats, class features (nor classes at this point), or any of the other things that take forever to roll up, select or explain to new players. Instead, you have a motley crew of untrained townsfolk, stirred into action and excited at the prospect of some loot and adventure. Players don’t have to learn any rules or new concepts. Instead, they only need to learn how to use their imagination.
Naturally, multitudes will die. That is another great tradition of the original role-playing games. Characters are not immortal. Characters die. This is a wonderful way to get accustomed to that concept. It is also something that has been lost, that I think is an important, and even enjoyable, aspect of play. My friends and I all have wondrous stories to tell of our lost characters and the horrific manner of their deaths. Today, players may brag about how high level their characters are. In the old days, we bragged about how high level our characters made it before they died.
Zero-level characters that survive their first adventure (funnel) become 1st level adventurers, at which time they select a class. Henceforth play is a bit more traditional, although I’m not sure that is the right word as there are a number of twists yet to come.
Funnels, as simple as they are, teach a number of things. All a player needs are imagination and common sense. High ability scores may help, but they aren’t necessary. Characters die. But when they do, just pick yourself up and move on with a different character.
By starting with nothing, players learn those core play-style essentials. Adding in the other mechanics later places them in the appropriate secondary position to these core principles.
As I said, the concept of funnels is an absolutely brilliant idea. It accomplishes so much with so little. I wish I had thought of it.
In the old school tradition of less is more, DCC doesn’t bog you down with endless rules for every situation. Instead, it falls to the Judge to arbitrate the game with common sense and ad hoc rulings. One way that they do this is with the use of Mighty Deeds
This is another brilliant innovation they came up with. While some games are filled with endless pages, detailing special moves available during combat, DCC replaced all that with a simple, easy-to-use mechanism that exemplifies the core of old school gaming. Before rolling an attack, a warrior may declare a mighty deed. This can be anything the player can imagine, within the limits of what is reasonably possible for the character to accomplish. The attack is rolled as normal, but a deed dice roll is made as well. If the attack hits and the deed dice exceeds a certain threshold, the deed succeeds. If the deed dice goes above and beyond the required amount, the deed succeeds even better.
The obvious benefit here is that detailed rules, for numerous specific combat moves, were thrown out in order to allow and encourage players to come up with memorable and inspired moves of their own. At its core, it is intended to promote a role-playing alternative to set-in-stone rules, but in practice it has apparently, led to some truly ingenious game play. I am very excited to see this in action at the game table.
Magic comes from gods and demons who are capricious and unconcerned with your character’s flyspeck of a life.
— Goodman Games
Spell casting is the most inspired, while at the same time the most terrifying, aspect of the game. I’ve come to think of spell casting much like math and physics, you simply need to understand it to master it, with various levels of understanding equating to various levels of mastery. DCC throws that definition out the window!
Although spell casting is essentially Vancian-based, in DCC it takes a somewhat darker turn. Magical knowledge is learned from gods or demons (or both), and spell-casters must yield a degree of allegiance to these other-worldly mentors.
Clerics still get their spells from their gods, but the gods are more involved with each casting of a spell. Your deity may be occupied with something else, resulting in your failure to cast a spell. Or worse, your frequent annoyances could bring down disapproval. You may have to serve some sort of penance to return to good graces. But disapproval is temporary and easy to restore.
Wizards, on the other hand, are on a much more dangerous road.
Low-level wizards are powerful. High-level wizards fear for their souls. Continual use of magic results in… changes.
— Goodman Games
Wizards may have to entreat with demons and devils to procure new spells, and each casting of a spell requires great skill (with potentially disastrous results from failure). A skillful casting succeeds, while spectacular castings yield equally spectacular results. Failure generally does no harm, but a truly poor casting can result in a spell misfire, or even permanent disfigurement (or worse). Often times, some of these effects can be mitigated by a little luck, but there is only so much luck so it is best to reserve your spells for when you really need them.
Playing the Game
Once I got over the initial fascination with the book itself, and started getting into the rules, I realized that I couldn’t wait to get some friends together and play. I’ve always run a sandbox game and designed the world myself, so I don’t normally use modules. But, in this case, I think I’d like to use an actual adventure module created by the makers of DCC, in order to see their vision of how an adventure should be run.
This is the first thing I’ve run across that I felt was incomplete about the game. It should have included an introductory funnel to get things started. That would have been a nice touch.
But wait… what’s this? I guess I didn’t read the table of contents closely enough. They DID include an introductory module. Not only that, they included two!
The Portal Under the Stairs is an introductory funnel adventure designed for 0-level characters. The Infernal Crucible of Sezrekan the Mad is a follow-up adventure designed for advanced characters. It’s like they read my mind.
Just the Tip of the Iceberg
As I said, I didn’t want to get too deep into the mechanics. I will be writing many future posts about various sections of the game. For now, I just wanted to cover the basics and tell you how absolutely awesome I think this game is.
As long as this post has become, I haven’t even gotten started. Spellburn, mercurial magic, crit and fumble tables (like you would never believe), luck, burning abilities, action dice, spell duels, patrons… omg, didn’t I mention Patrons?!? They are amazing and they will certainly get a post all of their own.
Buy the PDF. Buy the Book (if you can). Check back here often for updates (Okay, not often. Maybe every week or so). Dungeon Crawl Classics is hands down the best game I have seen in decades.
Images and quotations are excerpts from the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG rulebook, Goodman Games