Monday, May 14, 2012

Dungeon Crawl Classics' Missing 250 Pages

I spent the weekend reading the new Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. Topping out at 450 pages or so, it takes a bit of a commitment. Suffice to say that the game exceeds expectations. Goodman took a very old-school point of view and made a game that manages to offer a fresh perspective on many aspects of the game while loving maintaining all the core tenets of old school play. More importantly, the game doesn’t just provide rules, but it’s a primer on how to get the most out of its chosen style of play.

And the missing 250 pages are even better than the 450 the game provides!

Yeah, what’s that? The game’s missing about 250 pages. Let me explain:

One of the brilliant things about this style of play is the way that the core mechanics of characters, combat, magic, and treasure feed into the deeper realm that is each group’s unique experience of play without trying to define that experience. It’s always been my opinion that less is more in old-school rules, and that the simplicity of the rules is what forces groups to explore the rich ground that the rules don’t cover.

DCC addresses this through a series of interesting hooks in the character classes that explicitly point play in the direction of exploring this territory. Take the example of the thief. The thief’s alignment plays interestingly into their role in the world of thieves and society in general. A lawful thief is linked into the thief world through a crime family, guild, or gang. A chaotic thief is more likely an assassin, connected with more shadowy organizations, or perhaps working as a free agent. A neutral thief is more likely a mercenary, working along the borders of these groups for coin. A number of enticing sketches of potential thief organizations gives a great pointer for further directions of play. The other classes have similar hooks. The cleric has the uncertain relationship with their god. The fighter has heroic deeds and knightly orders to aspire too. The Dwarf has a complicated relationship with Dwarf society and the broader world. The Halfling has a strange and rich relationship with luck and the forces that guide it. The Elf has all of these to choose from. And the wizard has magical corruption, spellburn, and demonic patrons. These hooks are very wall laid out. The have the concise, leading language that Dungeon World and Apocalypse World do so well, and they are firmly rooted in the rich culture of old school.

But let’s talk about that wizard for a bit. As DCC tells us, low-level wizards fear for their lives, and high-level wizards fear for their soul. The hooks are designed to provide avenues to elaborate on that theme productively in play. Wizards have spellburn, enabling them to sacrifice some of their life force for temporary power. Magic carries inherent risk in terms of miscast and unpredictable effects. Most importantly, wizards have the option to find and develop a relationship with a magic patron, such as a demon, god, or extraplanar entity. As the wizard’s career advances, they will accrue unbelievable power, while also becoming more corrupted, compromised, and in the grip of horrible entities. The wizard’s story is the story of this struggle.

Mechanically, the elements of this story are woven into the spell descriptions, the sample wizardly patrons, the spellburn and casting mechanics, and bits of lore about the powers that make up the world. The wizard rules in DCC are a rich and morbid tapestry of power, risk, and reward.

All of which adds up to a good 50 pages of the DCC rules primarily focused on the story arc of wizards. We have some similar bits for clerics, woven into the spell descriptions and some tidbits about the gods. Thieves have a page with some hooks for thieves’ guilds. Elves have a few evocative passages of text. Which leads me to conclude that the rules are missing about 50 pages of awesome for every class. Writing 50 pages of awesome for the wizard and leaving the rest of the classes blank is the coolest and best and most interesting design choice by far in DCC RPG.

First off, the wizard pages are not, strictly speaking, mechanics. They are composed almost entirely of random tables and leading, sketched out content full of compelling blanks. They are an invitation to DMs to make wizards’ lives interesting, along with a whole lot of ways to do (more than you will ever, ever need no matter how many wizards you DM). The real rule here is “make the lives of wizards’ awesome, and if you’re not sure how to do that, use these tables.” The natural extension of this rule is “and do the same for all the other character classes in a similar vein.” Make the halfling’s life a long poker game played with Lady Luck. Play out the cleric’s dysfunctional relationship with their god in loving detail. Throw the world into stark contrast with Dwarf culture. Let the fighter re-make the world with her mailed fist. The game doesn’t tell you exactly how to do this, and that’s the point. The wizard pages are an example, and a particularly rich one informed by decades of play.

DCC RPG is the amazing D&D game that couldn’t be made until people had played D&D for 30+ years. If you’re already an old-schooler, you don’t need this game. But you will probably pick it up anyway because it’s so full of good stuff. I wouldn’t necessarily point someone to this tome over, say, Dungeon World, Modlvay D&D, Labyrinth Lord, or any of those, just because its length makes it seem more complex than it really is. I would recommend it, however, to anyone with a true love of D&D.

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Blogger Jason Zavoda said...

I just received my copy today and the book looks fantastic.

I am an unrepentent 1eAD&D player (pre-Unearthed Arcana), but I have 30 years of house rules that I add or drop or experiement with.

I won't be playing DCCRPG but I will be disecting it, flaying whatever interests me from the body of the book and seeing how it fots my own campaign.

The rules and tables for wizards sounded the most interesting and I am very glad to hear that such a large section was devoted to it. I certainly plan on carving out the wizards section, perhaps in its entirety, for experimentation in my long since frankensteined home campaign.

I have found the 1e AD&D has a very borg-like quality to it that encourages DMs to extract whatever they find distinctive and useful from whatever game systems they encounter.

We are the 1e AD&D DMs. Lower your dice and pencils and surrender your game. We will add your rule systems and creative distinctiveness to our own. Your game will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

May 14, 2012 at 2:48 PM

Blogger Vanguard said...

This is a great review. I've never played 1st or 2nd edition, but I've recently become pretty disillusioned with how granular and finite 3.X and PF have felt.

I plan on replacing those games with DCC RPG once I get the book and my Burning Wheel Campaign finishes up or falls apart.

May 14, 2012 at 4:34 PM

Blogger x said...

Starting with AD&D I can confirm the 'Borg' theory. We called it 'welding' and 'mulching'. We hit the local library for books, watched every movie we could that might yield up some gaming gold and adapted other systems into our games.

There were three of us that were DMs so it was always a challenge to find something obscure that the others didn't know. God at some of the monstrosities to come out of that. :)

I've never missed the old days, but I'm starting to...

May 31, 2012 at 9:31 PM


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