Monday, April 23, 2012

RPG Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics

The intent of the Open Game License that Wizards of the Coast released with the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons was to encourage other publishers to support the D&D game with adventures, something they had viewed as less profitable than rule books.

Goodman Games, the creators of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG made good use of the Open Game License in this manner, producing a successful line of adventures in a line called "Dungeon Crawl Classics". They were designed to hearken back to the adventure modules released by TSR in the late 70s to mid 80s with their gatefold maps in blue and white, about 32-48 pages in length, with killer dungeons, treasures galore, and dragons at the bottom of the dungeon. They released products in this line for the 3, 3.5, and 4th editions of the D&D game as well as the occasional special 1st edition AD&D adventure.

What I imagine must have surprised Wizards of the Coast is the fact that publishers and independent authors determined it was possible to release their own complete rule books using the Open Game License.The first RPGs made in this manner tended to stay close to the D&D 3.0/3.5 rules but time brought the development of retro-clones - making use of the material available via the Open Game License to recreate older versions of Dungeons & Dragons. The first generation of these tended to deliberately mimic the feel of specific editions of rules. For example Swords & Wizardry clones the pre-AD&D "original edition" or 0e rules while Labyrinth Lord at its core clones the Basic and Expert D&D rules of the 1980s (with supplements to incorporate elements of AD&D or the original edition).

What we've seen of late are a series of what I would consider "second generation" retro-clones. While hearkening back to various incarnations of the D&D rules they also put their own unique stamp on their games. It is as if they go back to a certain point of time in D&D history and then explore others roads that might have been taken by TSR. The three that come most to my mind are Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics (obviously named from their adventure line, which will continue supporting their new game), Lamentations of the Flame Princess' Weird Fantasy Role-Play, and Autarch's Adventure Conqueror King. In this review I will discuss Dungeon Crawl Classics.


With all the preliminaries out of the way, let's get to discussing the Dungeon Crawl Classics (or simply DCC). What I will be reviewing here is the PDF version of the game which I received with my pre-order of DCC. I do not yet have a physical copy of the book.

The PDF itself meets the most important criteria I have of that format - it is easily navigable. When using my Galaxy Tab or Kindle Fire I do not experience delays while navigating and it has a nicely formatted table of contents allowing for quick jumping through the book. The game is nicely illustrated with black & white images strongly reminiscent of both the style and of specific illustrations from the AD&D 1st edition rule books (with many TSR veterans of that era).

Despite the pedigree of the art, the rules of the game do not take the traditional retro-clone route. It is very much its own game that in my opinion takes many of the best things from 1st edition AD&D and 3rd edition D&D (oddly 3rd edition D&D is really a misnomer as in many ways it is the 3rd edition of AD&D but anyways...).

So let's walk through the game and see what we see.

Overview
I'm going to do this review with an overview of each section (which will include my own opinions where appropriate) followed by an overall impression.


Qualifications

The game begins with a list of "qualifications" for the reader. Kind of a manifesto. It does suggest it is not really intended as a novice game but rather for those familiar with the works of Gygax, Arneson, Bledsaw, Holmes, Kask, Kunzt, Mentzer, and Moldvay. It goes on to talk about the artists and style of the game.

One thing of note which may surprise veterans is in addition to making use of the traditional d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d% it also makes use of d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30. The reason for these funky dice is not given in this section but later on the book we learn that the main purpose of these different dice it to allow for "shifting" upward and downward of dice as modifiers. For example, when making additional attacks or spells or other actions a character keeps his normal bonus but rolls a lower die - a d16 instead of the traditional d20. Though my gaming group is fairly geographically dispersed requiring virtual dice I picked up some of these odd dice out of curiosity. The d3 is fine, albeit odd-looking. However the d5 and d7 seemed very odd and not evenly shaped - kind of like a wheel. For example the d5 is a three dimensional triangle with 1 and 5 as the bases and 2, 3, and 4 on the sides of the triangle. To be honest I don't quite trust it to roll randomly, though that might be my own prejudices.The patent indicates otherwise.

Introduction

The introduction explains the core mechanic which is familiar to players of the 3.x and 4th edition D&D games - roll a d20 (possibly shifted to a different die-type), add or subtract modifiers, and try to beat or match a target number.

It then talks about how this game differs from 3.x and AD&D. It is worth summarizing this:

  • Unlike 3.x, no prestige classes, attacks of opportunity, feats, or skill points
  • Like Basic/Expert D&D, races are also classes
  • Uses an ascending armor system
  • Three saves like 3.x - Fortitude, Reflex, and Willpower
  • Clerics turn what their religion considers unholy
  • All spells are cast with a spell check roll. Higher results indicate better results, customized by spell. Lower results mean failure. Only on a  failure is a wizard spell "lost" and a very low failure may result in some corruption (for wizards) or disapproval of the deity (for clerics).
  • The game makes use of a critical hit matrix.
  • Ability scores can be temporarily or permanently burned for special benefits/reductions in penalties.


Chapter One - Characters

DCC makes use of an interesting character generation system referred to as the "funnel". The intent is each player generates several random zero-level characters using 3d6 for every stat. It's been a long time since I've seen rules for zero-level characters. The intent is that you run all the characters at once in the first adventure where you will presumably lose some or even most of these poor, vulnerable characters and after the first adventure you pick your main 1st level PC(s) from among the survivors. Your characters' occupations (including race) are determined at random which will go towards what skills you have.

I like the idea, though I'd have preferred a little more detail. The rules as written basically give you 1st level abilities upon reaching enough experience and unless you rolled a non-human you get to pick your class. There was an AD&D adventure called Treasure Hunt which had a similar premise - you started out with a zero-level character. I like the DCC approach of multiple characters a little bit better - it gives a character with good stats a few "redshirts" to protect him and encourages extreme caution. However, one thing I liked about Treasure Hunt better is that  your actions in the adventure determined your class and over the course of the adventure you began gaining class abilities.



The abilities are a little bit different from traditional D&D games. They are:
  • Strength
  • Agility (effectively Dexterity)
  • Stamina (effectively Constitution)
  • Personality (a combination of Wisdom and Charisma)
  • Intelligence
  • Luck (new stat)
Luck is an important stat, perhaps too much so. (I think I'd make certain any character with a low Luck gets red-shirted in the funnel adventure...) It is used for:
  • A modifier to a certain kind of roll (determined at random) for the character's entire career. This modifier never changes even if luck goes up or down.
  • Modified critical hits, fumbles, etc.
  • Can be burned to get bonuses.
For the most part burned luck does not automatically come back though it can go back up very slowly. Thieves and halflings however automatically regain burned luck.


DCC makes use of three alignments - Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. Looking through the sample monsters we see goblins listed as Lawful while orcs are Chaotic, breaking away from the normal Lawful=Good convention Basic/Expert D&D used.

Unlike most D&D incarnations the maximum level is 10 and the game uses a fairly coarse experience system. It is designed like older D&D incarnations such that earlier advancement is quicker and 10th level characters are considered akin to demi-gods.

DCC features seven classes:
  • Cleric - able to cast spells, turn the unholy, and lay on hands to heal. Laying on hands is more beneficial to characters of the same alignment and/or religion. Every time a cleric fails in one of his attempts increases the chances of deity disapproval. A cleric knows a certain number of spells that increases with each level and never "forgets" a spell, even if his spell check is a failure.
  • Thief - Thief-abilities are, like everything else, resolved by d20 vs. Difficulty Class. Interestingly the thief's alignment determines his bonuses. For example, Chaotic thieves are best at back-stabbing while Lawful thieves are best at stealth and trap-handling. As mentioned before, the thief ability to regain luck is huge.
  • Warrior - A massive fighting machine. Instead of a straight bonus to attack rolls warriors get an ascending attack-die, +d3 at 1st level and +d10+4 at 10th. This is added to his normal attack rolls. Also, in place of feats this random die (called the Deed Die) is used for various stunts. To succeed in a stunt (like disarming, shoving a character, etc.) the attack roll must succeed and the Deed Die must meet a certain difficulty - 3 at the least, higher for more difficult stunts.
  • Wizard - Not surprisingly, a caster of arcane spells. Unlike traditional D&D games, a wizard does not usually "forget" spells upon casting them. Rather for every spell there is a table indicating the result for a given spell check roll, ranging from horrible failures such as  corruption (which can be super-minor to massive physical changes such as a character's mouth being replaced by a beak) to the mother of all magic missiles... A wizard knows a set number of spells that increases per level. Unlike traditional D&D games a wizard cannot expand his library by finding a spellbook or scroll. However, he can use this to determine what new spell he gains upon gaining a level, otherwise the new spell is chosen at random.
  • Dwarf - the first of the demi-human (returning to the pre-3.0 terminology) classes. The dwarf is very similar to the warrior, a tad less effective at warrior abilities but gaining special dwarf abilities such as infravision, underground skills, special abilities when using a shield, etc.
  • Elf - a combination of a wizard and warrior. Unlike the dwarf the elf does not gain the warrior abilities. An elf is also uncomfortable wearing iron armor, eventually taking damage. An elf is however about as effective as a wizard. Indeed, I could think of few, if any reasons, that you would choose an elf instead of a wizard. However since race is chosen at random, with the great majority of characters human, that may be as intended. One of the elf's initial spells must involve an extra-dimensional patron, a pact which is to the elf's benefit but at a price. Wizards can choose this as one of their initial spells but are not required to. The rules mention how over an elf's long life he probably makes use of consulting the same extra-dimensional multiple times. This puts a bit more of a sinister bent to elves. That said, I always found the wood elves of The Hobbit as kind of creepy and there is Schubert's Erlkönig for good examples of some less than frolicky elves.
  • Halfling - Halflings are a bit different than I'm used to. They are masters of two-weapon fighting and are very stealthy. Unique to this game (but in my mind, very in keeping with Tolkien's hobbit-folk), halflings are very lucky. Like thieves they regenerate luck. They also gain larger bonuses for their expended luck. Finally, unique to them, halflings are "good-luck charms" - they can spend luck for other characters. You can bet this would make having a halfling in the party a very popular option. 

Chapter Two - Skills

Skills are handled very coarsely in DCC, Based on a character's background (especially as a zero-level character) the Judge (not called DM or GM...) decides if the character is skilled or unskilled and either rolls a d20 or a d10 vs. a difficulty, with modifiers from ability scores, circumstances, etc.


Chapter Three - Equipment

Nothing terribly shocking here. A few things to note:
  • Some weapons (daggers, blackjack, etc.) do extra damage when used by thieves for backstabbing.
  • While wizards and elves can wear armor, the armor check penalty applies to their spellcasting checks.

Chapter Four - Combat

I've covered combat quite a bit with my discussion of warriors. A few interesting things that separates DCC from other D&D variants:
  • There are critical hit tables. Different tables are used depending on class, level, etc. Some of the criticals are brutal with limbs flying away. (Fortunately there are cleric spells that can patch those up, so make sure you save your severed limbs).
  • There are also fumble tables. Fumbles get worse the more heavily armored you are.
  • There are special rules for spell duels, involving the casting of spells and counter-spells.

Chapter Five - Magic

The chapter on magic is huge. The great bulk of it is made up of descriptions for spells. I've touched on the magic system quite a bit already. I'd have to say there are too main differences.
  1. Magic is not quite "Vancian". A character typically does not forget a spell after a successful casting, though a failure for wizards and elves does indicate a lost spell. Clerics increase the odds of gaining the disapproval of their deity with every failure (it starts as only happening on a natural 1 but increases with 1 for every failure).
  2. Magic is not predictable. To cast a spell you make a spell check, rolling a d20, adding your level plus your Intelligence (wizards) or Personality (clerics) modifiers, attempting to beat a Difficulty of 10 plus twice the spell level. Extremely low rolls may result in deity disapproval (for clerics) or misfires/corruption for wizards. Extremely high rolls result in some powerful results.
The system presents a setting where magic is very powerful but it is neither predictable or safe. Deity disapproval can have clerics making all sorts of sacrifices, working hard to evangelize new converts, etc. Corruption can be specific to a given spell or it can be generic deformation with skin growing scaly, hair changing colors. etc. It gives the tone of the corruption suffered by wizards in the Lankhmar and Conan novels. That said, it isn't severe as rules for corruption I've seen in books like the AD&D and RuneQuest Lankhmar sourcebooks. Odds are a character will suffer some corruption over time but not to the extent in those settings - and corruption can be avoided by permanently burning a luck point.

There is also some discussion on ritual magic - the idea that there are versions of spells that can be cast using rituals, harnessing the power of multiple casters and taking advantage of increased time to cast.


Chapter Six - Quests & Journeys

This chapter is primarily an advice chapter. It discusses some quests for powers that have no "spell" to gain access to - raising the dead, taming a dragon, special weapon proficiency, etc.

There is also a discussion about the setting, being a medieval world where most people do not travel and that travelers are special people. It has some basic information on travel times, gaining retainers, and other planes, suggesting that extraplanar situations be introduced early.

One thing I found a little disappointing is there isn't very much detail on travel, consisting pretty much of distance covered by varying modes of travel. There is no detail on terrains slowing you down, the possibility of getting lost, finding food in the wilderness, etc. I can certainly find that information in other D&D-style games but I would have liked to have seen it here - the dangerous wilderness seems such an important part of the genre that it seems a shame to "handwave" it.


Chapter Seven - Judge's Rules

This chapter has rules and guidelines for Judges with topics like familiars for wizards, consulting spirits, supernatural patrons (including new spells a wizard or elf might learn from his patron), divine aid for clerics, special magic regions, etc.

There is also a section on the frequency of heroes and on handing out experience points. DCC sugests for example that perhaps 5 people out of a hundred ever make it out of zero level and perhaps 1 in 10,000 people are fifth level.

Finally there is a section on Luck, including under what circumstances any character (including non-thieves and halflings) and gain or lose luck. This brought to mind some of the Lankhmar tales with Fafhrd and Grey Mouser earning the support or annoyance of the unworldly.


Chapter Eight - Magic Items

Magic items in DCC are all unique - there are no generic magic items. That said it has guidelines for the manufacture or finding of various items, especially magic swords with tables resembling those found in B/X D&D and AD&D for intelligent weapons with purposes. Of note is the fact that the gods do not care for powerful magic items and characters who bear them are subject to Luck penalties. (Did I mention it seems definitely worthwhile to dispose of any characters you roll up with low Luck during the Character Funnel adventure?)


Chapter Nine - Monsters

The Monsters chapter of course includes a listing of monsters with a lot of new critters such as androids, deep ones, etc. However, a large part of the chapter is dedicated to making monsters as unique as possible with advice such as "don't refer to a dragon, refer to the dragon".  Referring to Goodman Games' own Random Esoteric Creature Generator (by James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess) as inspiration it includes random tables for varying humanoid and a discussion on how to make other creatures as unique as possible. There are also critical tables for various creature types (if PCs get criticals so do the beasties).

Appendices

There are Appendices covering curses, languages, other "Old School Renaissance" games, poisons, a discussion on rules complexity, guidance on names, titles, and Appendix N (below) for inspirational reading.


Appendix N - Inspirational Reading

Appendix N reprints the 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide Appendix N list of inspirational sources and talks about the influence they had on the original D&D game. It also recommends Clark Ashton Smith who was somehow left off the original Appendix N and also recommends a pair of films for inspiration - the 1963 version of The Raven for its wizards' duel (I've never seen it) and The Horror of Dracula for its clear inspiration of the cleric's ability to turn the unholy (I have seen it and can definitely vouch for it).


Sample Adventures

There are a pair of sample adventures, one for zero-level characters and one for fifth. 

Both are pretty brief. They are interesting and useful but I think a Judge would want to expand them - especially "The Portal Under the Stars", the zero-level adventure.


Overall Impression

Well that overview wound up being awfully long - but it is hard to give a good impression without a good overview. I've also not shied from giving my opinion in my discussion of the contents.

Overall, I like what I see a lot. I greatly admire its boldness. You really can't call it a retro-clone, it is its own game which takes D&D as its starting point. And that may not even be fully accurate. I'd have to say it takes all the incarnations of D&D prior to the 4th as its starting point for its rules and takes the inspirations for original D&D as its inspirations. When I picture DCC adventures I don't really visualize characters dividing their +1 swords, their buffing items, etc. I picture the warrior as a battle-scarred dealer of death, the thief constantly pressing his luck and laughing at fate. I see clerics working to stay in their deities good graces, having reasons to go on quests and evangelize on behalf of his deity. I see wizards who possess great powers of which they are not fully the masters of. I see alien elves who have long-term relationships with demons and spirits, who are feared by humans with mothers who worry about children being kidnapped for the Elf-King. I see dwarfs as hardened warriors of the mines, looking for all the world like one of Thorin's folk. And I see halflings who survivors where you wouldn't think they would be, who manage to bring out the best in their companions.

While it's a thick book, there are a few things more I'd like to have seen in it and a few things I'm not convinced about. For example, Luck seems too important an ability score and elves seem to be able to do about everything a wizard can do and more (with there being only one experience table that all characters use). I'd also like to have seen a bit more detail in running wilderness and dungeon adventures. The book states it assumes that the Judges running this are experienced but I still think those are the sorts of thing that should have been included.

Beyond running this game, would I want to play in it? That depends. It certainly doesn't lend itself to carefully building a character to get every bonus possible, the sort of mini-game that the 3.x versions of D&D embraces. That's not to say you can't have an impressive character - the various classes all become powerful in their own ways. I think its appeal would lie in the accomplishment of developing your character - and surviving to that point. To do so will require intelligent play, to know when to be bold and when to hide. When do you burn that Luck point, risk angering your deity, etc.? Do you save that Luck point or risk further corruption.

I've been flirting with the idea of doing a D&D-esque game (right now we are playing Call of Cthulhu) and DCC definitely has a strong appeal.

2 comments:

  1. Nice, thorough review.

    I would point out, though, that 3pp making rulesets using the OGL shouldn't have surprised WotC. When 3e first came out, under the OGL, it was explicit that WotC expected this. Indeed, alternate rulesets that contained the same core ideas were expected to increase interest in D&D itself, and drive sales in that direction.

    Far from being a subversion of the original intent of the OGL, creating alternate rulesets was an explicit expectation.

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    1. Thanks for the comments ravencrowking.

      I'm trying to recall from my fuzzy memory some of the original discussions of the OGL. Now that I think of I think - and I might be mistaken - what WotC expected was alternate rules would still require the use of the Players Handbook (and thereby have the right to use the d20 logo). I do recall that the earlier books did indeed work that way (the original Babylon 5 RPG, Deadlands d20, etc.) Either way though I do definitely remember the OGL was intended to sell lots of Players Handbooks and I think it did that job well.

      Ah I did a little bit of Googling - it seems Ryan Dancey had predicted the OGL would be around to stay, that any version of D&D that diverged so much from the SRD "is simply not going to be tolerable to anyone in the D&D player network". I personally witnessed some players extremely unhappy with the 4th edition (I was ok with it though it was clearly a new game - my main problem was the grind of combat).

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