Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics

OSR is a term that gets thrown around quite a bit these days. Whether you think it stands for Old School Revival, Old School Rennaisance, Old School Role-Playing, or Old Socks Re-animated is up to you. It tends to apply to the role-playing games released between 1974 and 1991. In my mind it begins with the classic D&D "Brown Books" and really ends in '91 with the Rules Cyclopedia. But Goodman Games released a game called Dungeon Crawl Classics in 2012. The best way I can describe DCC is as if the OGL and the OSR made wild monkey love while listening to the soundtrack of the film Heavy Metal.

That being said, I wasn't initially impressed with DCC. It used extra-funky dice (d7? d24?!), had a bloody 0th level "character funnel" system, lurid art, and insisted on calling their GM's the ominous term of "Judge." It just felt like the game was trying too damned hard. There was no chance in hell it could deliver the promises put forth in its 400 pages. It was like the angry teenage punk band who sure as hell had the image down, but there was no way they could possibly rock that hard.

Well, I'm sure someone said the same thing about the Sex Pistols - and they'd be just as wrong as I am. Dungeon Crawl Classics promise a complete old-school experience and it delivers 100%. It preaches the chapter and verse of Appendix N, and if you roll for inititiative, it shall indeed come.

The game begins with author Joseph Goodman demanding that the reader, whether Judge or Player, commit to the old-school ideals and be ready to live and die by them. This seems, again, to be foolish and over blown. Bravado and blustering. It's easy to dismiss, but you have to hold on for a few pages and watch the beauty unfold.

The game begins not with 1st level heroes, but with 0th level nobodies. And you don't make just one. You make three or four. Why? Because they're going to die. So you sit down with a party of say four players and up to a dozen characters for your first adventure, which is called a funnel. Why it is a funnel? Because it starts big and things get peared down pretty damn quick. Now, character creation is random, and you're at the will of the dice. 3d6 straight down the line. Don't like it? Well, DCC doesn't give a crap if you like it - thems the breaks and if you want to survive you're going to have to think a little harder and a little faster than someone with a higher set of stats.

So, this trio of 0th level mooks you've got, what are their stories? Are they squires in training? Wizard's apprentices? Clerical acolytes? Not likely. They're beggars, gong farmers (look it up), or serfs. They're quite literally nobodies. They're going into the dungeon with maybe 4 hit points and a spade to defend themselves. When I first read this I was like "Hot damn, that's some cold mess right there. I can't be that brutal to my players."

Trust me. You can, and they'll thank you for it. Tough love.

Why? Because you see, when you take these characters into the funnel and they start dropping off, you're likely to have one who survives. And that character is the one who has a chance to become a legendary figure. Not a hero, but legendary. The thing is, by surviving the funnel they've earned it. DCC creates a sense of player accomplishment and pride, right from the get-go. Even if you didn't necessarily want to play an barber, that moustache cutting nobody just survived a dungeon full of some of the most terrible beasts ever to slither from the primordial ooze. That barber earned his place as a fighter, thief, wizard or cleric. Just having a class is an accomplishment. A comparison that springs to mind is from the film Chronicles of Riddick: "You keep what you kill."

So once you've earned your class, life doesn't get any easier. Clerics and Wizards have more freedom to cast spells, but run the risk of either drawing the ire of their god or inflicting horrible madness and scarring upon themselves through channeling arcane energy too often. Thieves can accomplish amazing feats of skill and luck, but one misplayed risk and they're a stain on the dungeon wall. Fighters aren't limited by feats, but instead delcare to the Judge their prowess in battle and have an opportunity to succeed on their Mighty Deed roll.

Spellcasting in DCC is no simple matter either. No two wizards learn or cast the same spell in the same way. One PC's magic missile might create tiny meteors that turn my hands green which was learned during a midnight meeting with an infernal trickster, while another's might be a screaming eagle's claw whose magical energy renders the wizard invisible for 1d6 rounds which was discovered scribbled on the back of an otherwise undecipherable tome. Magic is unique, vivid, and barely controlled by those reckless enough to wield it. And if you want more spells, you'd better go a questing, because arcane knowledge is exactly that: arcane. Spellcasters are rare because magic is rare, nearly impossible to master and comes at a price.

Monsters are the same. Rare, exotic, inhuman, and unfathomable. It's not "a" monster in DCC, it's "the" monster. Each is designed to be built upon and be unique, that way the players never really know what they're facing and just when they think they've got a handle on things the rug gets swept out from under them. No more "oh, they're only kobolds."

I guess the true beauty of DCC is that you really are "Partying like it's 1974." Everything is fresh and new, original and unexpected. The system works as a framework to build a unquie campaign upon that surprises time and time again. Besides, with adventures titled Sailors of the Starless Sea and Blades Against Death (where yes, you literally face off against Death), it doesn't hestitate to cut right to the chase and give you white knuckle, do-or-die gaming right out of the box.

I wrote off DCC on my first go around because it just felt like it was trying too damned hard. The fault however, wasn't in the game - it was in me. In over 25 years of gaming I had become old, jaded, and cynical. I'd seen it all - or so I thought. DCC showed me that gaming can be fresh, fun, and make me feel like a kid again. No game has done that since the Rules Cyclopedia over 20 years ago.

Dungeon Crawl Classics is available for $39.99 for the hardcover core rules in most gaming stores, or on the Goodman Games website. You can also order the PDF on DriveThru RPG and RPGNow for $24.99. In addition, there are a long list of official DCC adventures to keep your players excited for years to come. I'd highly, highly, highly recommend this game. Your players may knee-jerk against the Character Funnel and extra-funky dice, but ask them to have a little faith. It'll pay off in spades and in fun... and a bit of blood.

1 comment:

  1. THats a good review

    I ought to run you through something sometime.