In the beginning there was Gygax, and there was joy, or so I heard, for the people wanted old-school fantasy and they were given it, but lo, it sucked horribly, for OD&D is just an old, outdated system.
And after those days, there came a new generation of gamers who wanted the old-school feel, but not the old rules, for many years have passed and with them came much knowledge and experience in the land of game designers. And so, many new systems arose and asked to be called “retro-clones” and the like, from Swords and Wizardy (that simplified the original) to Dungeon World (that tried a new approach), and many more (like Lamentation of the Flame Princess, which is weird). Some of them are Ehh, some are OK, some are pretty cool.
But I really like Dungeon Crawl Classics! Other old-school systems are fun and all, some are even clever, many are worth playing, but DCC makes me wanna pick up the dice, like, right now.
It’s a classic
I’ve been following the Dungeon Crawl Classics brand ever since 2005, when I first heard of it. I really liked the idea – a dungeon crawl adventure, capturing the feel of olden days but with a modern system, 3.5e. Over the years I’ve bought more than a dozen DCC adventures, and ran at least half of them, 3.5e and 4e alike. I liked most of them – Goodman Games became my go-to company for old-school feel, and adventures in general.
Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG is their new OGL (loosely based on 3.5e) system, aimed at recapturing old-school from the bottom up. It’s a big book, 460 pages – it’s heavy and bulky, and full of tables. That’s actually a good thing, amazingly.
I tend to see tables as a sign of ancient, primitive game design. In DCC, though, they’re used extremely well, tables are actually needed – that’s because they determine random results, which are the basis for mystery, which is the hallmark of old-school.
The book is thick, but not because of rules bloat or un-needed sections. Every part of this system was well-thought, designed to fit in with the rest, and with the prime objective. There are no leftovers, no extra parts, no useless rules. This system is elegant. Play it by the rules, and you’ll get old-schooled as hell, and without fuss.
Same old classes, unique take
Each class has its own special mechanic, to make it special. Nothing too complex (unless you’re a wizard. But it you are, you asked for it), and with lots of wiggle room. The rules provide guidelines, not restrictions.
The prime example is the Warrior, who can do a “Mighty Deed of Arms” – depending on the roll of the Deed die (1d3 at first level), you can accomplish a special maneuver by announcing what you’d like to do. If you get 3 or above, you did it – the higher, the better. From simply pushing your enemy off his feet, to cutting off his fingers, depending on the GM’s judgement, and based on some guidelines. And you can do it every round – being awesome in combat is the Warrior’s shtick.
The same idea applies to the other classes – every fantasy archtype is supposed to be awesome at something, so the rules make sure it is. Rogues are so good at hiding etc., that they don’t roll opposed rolls, but against a DC. If they succeed, they’re just hidden. No one can see them. Clerics can heal and pray and ask for all sorts of special care from their god, but they also risk his ire by misusing their powers (you can’t POSSIBLY be thinking of healing a HEATHEN, right?), and by simply requesting too much. There’s a clever system for handling this, with a growing “disapproval” rating, accumulating with every use of divine powers (and lowered by doing cool rituals and giving sacrifices!). And Wizards… well, the price for power is a hefty and horrible one. I’ll be returning to magic later.
I did notice a problem with the demi-humans. Like in OD&D, they are basically a normal class + something extra, and that something isn’t interesting enough. A dwarf is just a fighter who’s good with shield. I would have preferred to see something more, the non-human races deserve personal treatment. They’re archtypes just like any other class – and if you don’t think so, why not use races as normal, as a character option, instead of making them into a class of their own?
For experienced players only
DCC is clearly geared toward veteran players – it claims so from the get go, and the book is filled with “the author felt no need to instruct you on this or that, you already know how to do it”. This goes a bit to the extreme in the magic items chapter, which states that you probably already have loads of wondrous magic items in past systems and source books you’ve bought, so no need to reprint the usual ones. Although that’s absolutely right, it still feels like a bit of a cop-out.
Just to be clear, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any magic items, only the wondrous ones are missing. There’s a long discussion on magic weapons, for example. In sword and sorcery, there’s no such thing as “another +1 sword”, and the rules make sure you won’t get one either.
Feats, opportunity attacks, and other “advanced” rules aren’t included, but noted. The book suggests adding whatever you like. Seeing as there aren’t that many moving parts in the mechanics, it might even work. However, it gets trickier when considering the Deeds, since they are a replacement to combat feats, and the two can’t mutually co-exist.
Several other mechanics are worth mentioning, like the way skills are treated (untrained simply roll a d10 instead of d20) and the use of a Luck attribute as a kind of action point system.
Magic is magical
In keeping with the attempt to make everything wondrous, adding mystery wherever possible, magic is very unpredictable. Every spell has a table, featuring misfires, corruptions, and several degrees of success (that’s why the book is so thick – about a hundred spells, each with a page or two!) The higher you rolled your casting roll, the stronger your spell will be – maybe too strong! And a natural 1 is always dangerous. A fireball might explode on the spot, a levitation might make you permanently un-anchored to the ground. Magic is strange and weird, and eventually bad things will happen.
I especially liked Mercurial Magic. Since every wizard is different, and since magic answers to rules unknown by men, every wizard casts every spell differently. YOUR fireball might be especially powerful, or maybe everytime you cast Magic Missile you must sacrifice a finger. Randomization tables, I love you so!
The book also features spell duels. Besides being a staple of fantasy rarely seen in fantasy RPGs, it’s a great way to make sure wizards don’t overshadow the rest of the party too much at higher levels (except slowly becoming an insane, horrible creature from using so much magic, that is). The wizards cast spells at each other, counterspelling and keeping each other busy.
There are lots of other things to discuss – critical hit tables for melee fighters, supernatural Patrons for wizards, etc. I haven’t even written about the strange character creation system! No more room here, just buy the damn book.
Ok, just a few words about char gen. Basiclly, you roll up two to four characters, 3d6, by order. You assign a random occupation to each – these guys are still 0-level, no actual Class yet. Then you play your first adventure – yes, with lots and lots of chars – most of them die horribly, but a few survive and manage to get to 1st level. THESE you play. THAT’s the mental state you should assume when playing DCC – just trying to survive in a strange and arbitrary world, gaining gold and glory, knowing one day you’ll probably die horribly, and surprisingly. You weren’t born a hero, but maybe you’ll manage to become one.
Get me the funky dice
Most of all, DCC makes me want to play. It makes me want to play so much. DCC RPG isn’t merely a system of rules that simulates the physical laws of an imagined world, it’s a set of directions that produces fun. It’s full of cool stuff you want to try and characters you want to be. You want to play this game, just to see what’s going to happen next. It’s a mystery making machine. This game knows exactly what it wants to do – capture the essence of old-school and sword and sorcery – and does it exceptionally well.
As with every good RPG that knows what it wants, many readers will find out they don’t want the same thing. The more focused you are, the smaller the crowd you’re aiming at. I reside happily within this crowd (but I’m easy to please, I like playing ANYTHING), but even in my closest gaming group I’m not sure I’ll find more than 2-3 people who feel the same. Most will look at the randomization, especially during character creation, and wrinkle their noses. You might think the same.
I urge you to look past this “obstacle”, for it is a feature, not a bug. If you love the spirit of adventure and the feel of the unknown in books by authors like Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, believe me, randomization is your best tool – one of several used by DCC RPG to create this desirable, hard to pinpoint feeling. If you don’t know these authors, you should try them out! They present a whole new type of fantasy, one you’ve never read before.