This is a review of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, published by Goodman Games. It was written by Joseph Goodman. The version I’m reviewing is a hardcover print edition, about 480 pages long (counting the ads in the back), full colour cover, full colour inside front and rear covers, and everything else in (utterly glorious) black and white.
And when I say glorious, it is really glorious. You might have seen some pictures online of what some of the art of this game looks like. It really doesn’t compare to holding the real thing in your hand. It is amazing. Before anything else, before getting into any of what might be great or bad about the DCC game itself, I can say without a doubt that this is now the most beautiful RPG book I’ve ever seen. Its fantastic. There have been very beautiful books I’ve reviewed before that were great rpgs (like Aces & Eights’ hardcover, or Starblazer Adventures, both of which are really amazing), and beautiful books which were not that great as RPGs (like Alpha-Omega, that had stunning art, even though the game didn’t really do it for me); but DCC tops them all. Every single one. And I can’t fathom what a better-looking RPG book would be, after this.
So that’s it: if you want 480 pages of incredible astounding fantasy art, just stop reading and buy this game right now.
If you’re wondering what DCC is like as a roleplaying game, then I guess you must read on.
To start with, DCC is an OSR game. Its actually by Goodman Games, who were making old-school modules before it was cool (that is, at a time when no one else was doing them, even way back during the d20 craze), so these guys know their stuff. However, it is most certainly not a D&D “clone”. What you won’t find here is a carbon-copy of 1e or B/X, or any other edition of D&D; you won’t even find a game that is mostly like a certain edition with just a few key differences that make it stand out (like what you see in Lamentations of the Flame Princess). Instead, DCC is on the one hand recognizably D&D, but on the other its nothing like any other version of D&D out there.
And if I may get all philosophical for a moment, this is a very interesting thing, because it has been welcomed with open arms by the OSR, and pretty much proves the lie to the claims that all the OSR wants is the same old 1974 (or ’78, or ’81) rules with no innovations. DCC is an amazing example of just how much innovation the OSR actually engages in and welcomes. Its not innovation that’s the problem, its how that innovation is done; and I think that the designers of D&D Next should be picking over this game with a fine-toothed comb to try to understand why they can change all the rules and end up being adored by the OSR while 4e changed all the rules and was despised by old-school gamers (and most everyone else).
So what, in this case, is the alleged point of all this innovation, besides giving Goodman a vehicle of their own so that they can produce adventures not bound to some other company’s RPG? I could say that it would be enough of a mission statement to just want to make a kick-ass old-school RPG; or to make an RPG that fits the type of adventures Goodman likes to write. But the book itself takes it one step further. The alleged goal here is to create a version of D&D that gets much closer to the ideal of “Appendix N” (the famous “recommended reading” appendix of the 1e DMG) than D&D ever did.
Now the thing is, I’ve looked at the actual list of titles in Appendix N: its a huge sprawling mass of books that are largely just stuff Gary Gygax liked; a lot of them have very little in common with each other. Saying “we’re going to make this the Appendix N RPG” is awesome marketing on their part to the OSR-crowd, but in practice what it amounts to is not so much about appendix N as it is about taking D&D, cutting down drastically on the Tolkien influence, and amping up the Moorcock, Lieber, and Howard to 11. Mind you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that at all; its what I mostly love, in fact.
So let’s look at what DCC actually does with the D&D rules. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume that most everyone reading this is already familiar with what old-school D&D normally looks like; if that’s not the case, go do a bit of research on the subject (come ask us at www.therpgsite.com, if you like) and then get back here.
For starters, what’s not different: the game still has, in B/X style, four human classes and three non-human: Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling. They still act (in the broader sense) the way those classes normally do in old-school play. Combat is still recognizably D&D combat. Magic, while working in some ways very different than in regular D&D (strictly speaking its not what most people would term “vancian casting”), is still very similar to D&D magic with many of the same spells. You still have magic items, monsters, treasure, and obviously dungeons. The broad strokes are the same, the details are what changes, sometimes in big ways.
It should be noted that Goodman Games was doing “old school” adventures for D&D 3.x back in the days of the D20 craze; perhaps because of that, there are a few things they’ve imported over to the DCC rules that are clearly from 3e. Mainly, the saving throws in DCC are Fortitude, Reflex and Will. AC ascends, and there are attack bonuses (but of course, a lot of OSR games have gone that way too). There’s also a single XP table, rather than one for each class (a decision shared by my own Arrows of Indra old-school RPG). None of the really “bad” elements of 3e are there, however; you won’t find attacks of opportunity or complicated feats or prestige classes; there isn’t really a codified skill list system like you see in 3e, so hardcore old-schoolers need not worry.
Now, I guess before we proceed we must address one particularly big difference: the “dice chain” and the use of “weird dice”. DCC doesn’t just use the standard D&D set; instead it also makes use of a number of the far less common gaming dice that until now served relatively little purpose in the hobby: the d5, d7, d14, d16, d24 and d30.
Now, I’m man enough to admit that when the DCC game was first announced, and we were told that it would use “all the dice”, I came down on this idea like a ton of bricks. In fact, in one of my less insightful prophecies, I predicted the DCC game would flop because of this decision. Obviously, I was very very wrong. My crucial error was underestimating gamers’ love for dice, and that apparently these weirdo-dice were a tool waiting for a niche; obviously, the inclusion of these dice did nothing to hamper DCC’s success, and may even have contributed to it. Even so, if you don’t own these dice, be aware you’d have to get a set to play DCC (the book does give you some alternative methods of rolling the results, but that’s a pretty poor substitute).
The “dice chain” is applied in a number of ways in the game, mainly in that as a character goes up in level, he may end up rolling certain abilities on a higher step of die on the “chain” than he previous did. In some resolutions, modifiers may end up reducing or increasing the type of die you roll instead of providing a fixed bonus.
The other biggest difference in the game, as far as I’m concerned, is the level system. Unlike most D&D-clones that presume you start out at level 1 and can get up to a fairly high level (anything from “unlimited”, to 36, to 20, to 15 in some cases like ACKS), the DCC game presumes the PCs will start out at level 0 (yes, that’s zero), and can theoretically get as high as level 10 at the most. Mind you, the power-spread works quite differently; a 10th level character is an incredibly powerful killing machine compared to a 10th level character in standard D&D (and if you’re playing DCC by the book, it would be a pretty amazing accomplishment to have a character live long enough to get that far).
Zero-level play goes through something called the “character funnel”, where each player makes several (anything from 3 to 5) 0-level characters. These are quite weak, with a simple profession (farmer being the most common), a skill related to that profession, and an item likewise related, plus some very basic objects. So this is very much a zero-to-hero being taken to the extreme. I don’t remember much of that in the Appendix N literature, but it certainly is fun.
Survivors of 0-level play get to pick a class only when they reach 1st level. In the game, you can only be a demi-human if your 0-level profession indicated you were an elf, dwarf or halfling, and in those cases you then MUST take that racial class (you can’t be a “Dwarven Wizard”, for instance). I found that a little limiting, but easy enough to houserule.
On the whole, the character funnel seems like it would be an awesome way to create a character; but I can see some people and groups not liking it; it binds the characters to a total “zero to hero” mentality, moreso than regular D&D, and it means that you treat characters as playing pieces until such time as you finally settle on a 1st level character. Again, its easy enough to skip 0-level and start a character off right at 1st, but to me that would feel like you’re missing something pretty fascinating, and key to what the game’s zeitgeist is about. Personally, I would very much like to run a funnel and see what happens.
I should mention too, before I go any further, another crucial difference from regular D&D: the ability scores. They don’t use the same ones. There’s Strength, Agility, Stamina, and Intelligence (with the middle two being a renamed Dex and Con), but then there’s Personality (mostly Charisma, but Will Saves are based on this, so it gets some of the qualities of D&D’s Wisdom), and finally Luck. So, there’s no Wisdom attribute per se, or rather most of Wisdom and Charisma are combined into the single stat of Personality.
Luck means random fortune, and you get to use Luck in several ways. First, you get your luck modifier to apply to crits and fumbles (more on those later), corruption (more on that later too), and a few other things, plus one randomly determined quality performed at character creation; so for some players Luck may affect their attack rolls, while for others it might just affect their known languages, and for some it might affect their spell checks (which will mean nothing if they don’t play a spellcaster).
Luck can additionally be “burned”, voluntarily and permanently losing points of Luck to give you a one-time bonus to a roll equal to what you gave up. Thieves and Halflings actually regain luck spent this way; for everyone else, Luck is a non-renewable resource except for very rare adds given if they’ve performed truly impressive deeds.
Let’s look too at the differences in specific classes; there are a lot of them! In fact, the DCC game is full of bells and whistles and subsystems, almost all of which are fascinating and cool to read, but some of which I wonder just how well they really work in practice; I think some might drag the game down, either in terms of time, or extreme unpredictability, or of having to look things up. I suspect DCC runs slower than D&D, though I can’t really say how much slower (on theRPGsite, I’ve been assured that its not very much slower, because many of these subsystems come up only rarely, but I can’t vouch for that firsthand).
Clerics and Wizards alike, to get to the big example, cast magic with a “magic check”. They have to roll a die (usually D20 but sometimes the dice chain moves up or down on that) plus modifiers, and the result determines if a spell goes off or fails (the DC for basic success is usually 10+2/lv). If a wizard rolls too low, they lose the spell use for the day. If a Cleric rolls too low, he gains his god’s disapproval and must do a randomly-determined act of atonement. If a Wizard rolls extremely low, he can gain Corruption, which will cause some kind of warhammer-esque mutation of his person (he can avoid this fate by burning a luck point). Pretty much all of these things have to be rolled and then referenced on tables. On top of this all spellcasters will have their spells manifest in a certain way (requiring another roll and referencing another table), a Wizard might misfire (requiring another check in another table) or get “Patron Taint” (more on this later, but yes, it involves yet more rolls and more tables), a wizard might use “spellburn” (temporarily or permanently losing ability scores other than Luck to add to his spell check, which again requires another roll on another table), and each wizard’s spell has its own particular permanent manifestation called mercurial magic, which is rolled randomly only when first obtaining the spell but some effects require further rolls. So that’s a whole lotta rolling and table-reading for such a central task in play. I can certainly see how for someone who’s had experience with the game, this all can be resolved extremely quickly, but I could also see a newbie getting profoundly befuddled by it all.
I’m not meaning to put down the notion of the game; hell, I love random tables, and I love the idea of magic being more unpredictable than its super-reliable nature in standard D&D; but I am just saying that DCC is clearly a more complicated game to run than regular D&D would be in just about any old-school edition.
Its enough to make some of my players, who are not precisely averse to old-school games, say that they would not want to play a spellcaster in DCC. And for at least a couple of my players tell me they just wouldn’t want to play this game, period (one of whom was begging me to run an AD&D 1e campaign not long ago).
I suspect that part of what bugs them is that unpredictability; in the case of one player I know it to be so. He was particularly pissed off by the notion of Deity Disapproval with Clerics, finding it stupid that his deity could randomly be angry at him; even a god of Law could, for no special reason, decide he needed punishment not for anything he did or for his motives but just because he got an unlucky roll on a die. I could understand, for my part, how this meshes with the style of play that the DCC game encourages, and after all, that’s a bit like saying that a fighter doesn’t get to hit just because of an unlucky roll on a die; but I can also see how the way its worded, and the seeming arbitrariness of it all, would rub someone the wrong way.
In a larger sense, I could see how those D&D fans who love to play Magic-Users and Clerics in regular D&D specifically because its a strategic game of resource-use with memorized spells that always work the same way would LOATHE playing Wizards or Clerics in DCC, where nothing about magic is predictable. Again, not a flaw of the game, but be forewarned!
To cover some other differences with the Cleric: clerical healing is now a mechanic separate from Cleric spells, and you cure different amounts based on level and on the alignment of your subject. Healing someone of opposite alignment has way less effect, and increases your likelihood of deity disapproval. Clerics don’t just Turn Undead; here they Turn Unholy, which is a long list of different creatures based on one’s alignment: a Lawful cleric turns undead (but also demons, chaotic dragons, and orcs). A Neutral Cleric turns regular animals (kind of strange that normal animals would be “unholy” to neutrality, but also undead, devils, lycanthropes and slimes/oozes. A Chaos cleric turns Angels, lawful dragons, and law-aligned humanoids (the example given is Goblins). Preferred weapons are also by alignment.
Thieves get the standard “thief skills” (backstab, which grants a critical hit; sneak, hide, pick pockets, climb, pick locks, find and disable traps (two different skills), Forge documents, disguise self, read languages, handle poison, and read scrolls. Just what bonuses one gets in these skills depends upon whether one is a Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic thief (ie. a “boss”, an “assassin”, or a “swindler”). Thieves get bigger bonuses for spending Luck, and they regenerate luck at a certain rate per day.
Warriors in DCC don’t get a fixed attack bonus, instead they get a “deed die”. This die is rolled with each attack and added to their bonus to hit AND damage. The deed die can also be used to perform “mighty deeds”, special combat maneuvers of any kind (where the deed die determines if the maneuver succeeds or fails; the fighter still also rolls to hit and must hit for the deed to work). A Mighty Deed can be almost anything the Player can think of, but examples that are actually regulated in the book are things like blinding, disarming, pushback, tripping or throwing, precise shots, rallying, defensive maneuvers, or certain weapon specific deeds. Obviously, warriors also get the best attacks, damage, and hit points as well as the widest range of usable weapons and armor (“usable” in the sense of being trained; anyone can theoretically use any weapon but lack of training means you roll a lower die on the dice chain).
Wizards, in addition to the spell rules already mentioned above (note that wizards don’t memorize spells, they have a certain number of spells based on their level, and may lose the ability to cast specific ones for the day with a bad roll), can also obtain a Patron. This is a demon lord or greater spirit of some kind with which the Wizard enters into a contract or special relationship. Obtaining a patron grants one the ability to invoke the patron for powerful aid, as well as learn certain unique spells; on the other hand it opens one to being gradually transformed (via “Patron taint”) into becoming more attuned to the vision, nature or even appearance of their Patron.
Patrons are a big deal for wizards, though not obligatory; the system for patrons is complicated in the sense that it involves several spells (Patron Bond, Invoke Patron, plus the patron spells granted by the patron), specific invoke patron results, specific spellburn types required, and the detailing of specific patron spell tables with specific results and manifestations… and only 5 patrons are provided in a fully fleshed-out fashion. What I’m saying is, this is a pretty important part of the game and is extremely complicated for the GM to come up with on his own. In fact, coming up with new spells in general is very difficult for a GM, because its not like in regular D&D where you just have to think a name, duration, range, and effect (and then pick an appropriate level); here you have to write up a whole table, including manifestation (the form the spell manifests as, typically written in the form of a small random table), corruption (the specific kind of corruption that a critical failure on the spell can cause, again another small random table), and then a long list of varied effects depending on the spell check result (for example, the 1st level spell “Comprehend Languages” has different results depending on if you rolled a 1, a 2-11, a 12-13, 14-17, 18-19, 20-23, 24-27, 28-29, 30-31, or 32+, and that’s pretty typical for a 1st level spell). This is the reason why spells take up one or more entire pages each, and why a whopping 174 pages (p.129-303) are dedicated to nothing but spell descriptions (oh, and that’s not counting another 15 or so pages for the Patron spells!). The very thing that makes magic awesome in DCC also makes it much harder to effectively reproduce, much less improvise.
Wizards can also gain familiars, and know extra languages.
As for demi-humans, Dwarves can do most of the warrior stuff, plus they’re especially good at fighting with shields, and have the standard infravision and underground lore. Elves are not as great at fighting though still pretty good; but they also use magic just like a wizard, only with an automatic bonus access to the Patron bond and invoke patron spells (the elves tend to focus on having demonic contracts, apparently) They also get the infravision and immunity to sleep and paralysis, and heightened senses, but they have an allergy to iron (meaning that if they want to use metallic weapons or armor it needs to be mithril). Halflings are stealthy, particularly good at fighting with two weapons, and mainly, they’re lucky: they get bigger bonuses for spending Luck and regain luck in a way similar to that of a Thief; most importantly, they are the only class that can spend their luck to give someone else a bonus.
All forms of skills and skill checks are done by rolling a die, adding relevant bonuses and beating a DC. There’s no skill list a la 3.x D&D, instead skills just mean checks based on one’s profession, or special ability checks like a thief’s skills. If you are trained in some way, you usually roll a D20 for a skill check; untrained, you roll a d10. The entire chapter on skills and skill checks is only 2 pages long.
The section on equipment is surprisingly basic, only 4 pages long, with a section on weapons, armor, a very short equipment list, and a short list of mounts. That’s it. I’m kind of surprised, as I feel this was under-done, especially for the sort of game DCC is. The encumbrance rules amount to a paragraph telling the GM to just use common sense. I’ll note that armor determines the die used for fumbling, which is quite clever; a less armored character will suffer less from fumble results than a guy in full-plate, tying both armor and fumble checks to the concept of mobility. Two-handed weapons reduce the initiative die of the wielder. Armor also has armor check penalties, which apply to physical activities of various kinds as well spell casting (wizardly, not clerical). We’re told mithril armor may reduce the armor check penalty for spells, but we aren’t told how, nor are any statistics for mithril armor provided.
On the other hand, the combat rules are very complete, providing all the rules one would expect. One important difference in the combat rules from regular D&D are the presence of Fumbles and Criticals. A natural 1 fumbles, a natural 20 (usually) is a critical (some classes get a larger range of criticals, and if you use a lower die sometimes the highest result on that die is a critical, the dice chain complicates the thing slightly). Fumble results are rolled on a random table, the die type being determined by armor worn (an interesting way of presenting fumbles as mobility issues from heavier armor use), and results can vary from minor inconveniences to wounding yourself for full damage. There are different Critical tables depending on your class (and for warriors, depending on your level), as well as critical tables for monsters of different sorts (dragons, undead, giants, etc. each have their own crit tables). The die roll for a critical hit depends on level, and some of the effects (particularly on the Warrior and monster tables) can be quite gruesome, up to and including results of “instant death with no save”.
The combat rules also contain some very interesting but quite complex sub-system rules for handling spell duels between two wizards. These rules (where wizards can basically spell and counter-spell each other, sometimes to very unexpected results) appear very tricky at first glance but careful reading does make sense of them.
The latter part of the book contains a plethora of GM advice; including suggestions on how to fit the vision the author has of “Appendix N” gaming (for one example, he suggests a relatively small “explored” setting, but also suggests including planar adventuring right from early levels). Guidelines are provided for how Wizards can gain new spells: unlike in D&D, you can’t just add all the spells you can find, because the mechanics only allow Wizards a limited number of spells. New spells are rolled randomly at leveling; however, if you find a spell through whatever means, you can attempt to learn that one in particular (requiring a potential task or component, which are rolled randomly), you can also seek out specific spell knowledge (with a random table indicating where it might be found).
In this section you also get rules on familiars, on communicating with spirits, the aforementioned rules on patrons, and rules for clerics to request divine aid directly (like everything else in DCC, it comes with strings attached IC, and random tables OOC).
There’s also rules for random magical effects, leveling up, and how to manage luck (and on what rare occasions to give people Luck rewards).
Then we get to magic items. This is a very mixed bag of a chapter. Like some of the other OSR-products I’ve reviewed, DCC makes the claim that on account of there already being so many other lists of magic items out there, they don’t really have an obligation to make a complete one of their own. My response is that, as in those other cases, this represents something of a missed opportunity: magic items are one of the best ways, in my opinion, to present the kind of implied setting you want to put forward. In the case of DCC, at least, there’s a half-measure toward this: certain types of magic items are exquisitely detailed, while others end up being completely ignored.
Swords get by far the most impressive treatment, with a whole series of tables to generate them. And its a perfect example of just how magic items can push forward the implied setting: all swords have alignments, intelligence, and many have special properties, powers and purposes. There’s no totally generic +1 sword in DCC.
Scrolls get a shorter, slightly less awesome treatment, but they have to be addressed since the magic system is so different. I’ll note that in the game, ANY character can theoretically attempt to read a scroll, though only wizards, elves, and higher-level thieves are likely to actually succeed in using one. Potions get detailed, though a relatively short list of them, through the “make potion” spell; but then everything else gets a big goose-egg. You don’t even get magic armor, which one would think would be as important and have as much potential as weapons (plus the niggling little detail that elves can’t wear normal metal armor without an allergic reaction, and you’d think that the mechanical qualities of mithril and adamantine, both mentioned in the flavor text of the book, would have been touched on somewhere).
In the monster section we get some of the same declaration of how you shouldn’t ever use generic monsters, and how they don’t really need to have a huge list of monsters because of that, and how you should probably make your own; despite this, you do actually find a pretty adequately-sized and fascinating bestiary in this chapter, with pretty much all your standard “all-star” D&D monsters present. And of course, loads of random monster tables: tables to generate full-blown random monsters, tables to randomize humanoids, undead, demons, dragons, special critical tables for monsters, and a selection of statblocks for creatures common to unusual (the latter including things like androids, elder brains, cave crickets, shroomen, time travelers, and more). There’s also a very useful section, often omitted in games, with a number of statblocks for different archetypal NPCs (soldiers, peasants, witches, nobles, etc… anything a PC might need to interact with or fight). On the whole, its much more satisfying than the magic items section.
Finally, there are a couple of sample adventures: one “character funnel” for 0-level characters, and another very very short adventure for mid-level characters. Of these, the first looks like a really excellent introduction to the game, the second looked to me just a little bit like phoning it in, in the sense that it was nothing special.
There are also appendices: on curses, languages, poisons, names and titles. There’s also an appendix dedicated to the OSR, with lists of OSR-friendly blogs and forums, but I’ll note that neither theRPGsite nor my own blog are mentioned. I guess that’s fair because both are about more than JUST the OSR; but I should point out that Goodman Games and I share the common trait of having been advocates for old-school play before the term “osr” even existed, and some of the guys on that blog list (the awesome JRients, for example) were reading and praising my writing before they ever started to do their own stuff. Anyways, I’ll forget their omission, but I hope that in future they’ll be kind to theRPGsite, which is probably the one large and general rpg-forum where old-school is really welcomed and encouraged with something more than grudging and reluctant toleration.
So what can I conclude about this game? It does seem as though, reading through, I’ve been kind of harsh; rather critical, of a number of points that are perhaps imperfect about the game’s design. This is not exactly a neat and tidy game, in spite of the fact that its also clear quite a bit of thought has been put into how they wanted to enact the various mechanical changes that were made from standard-D&D.
This game, I think, should not be good. Its not a tight clever set of rules-modifications from regular D&D, like “Lamentations of the Flame Princess”. It is instead a big mess of changes, with several questionable parts: the weird dice, the incomplete items lists, the added complexity in every kind of task resolution, the very complicated rules on magic (including the extremely complicated patron rules and spell-duel rules). There are all kinds of individual things about it that are just problematic.
But DCC has something about it that makes me want to run it SO BAD. I want to play it. I want to design a campaign of it. I want to write sourcebook for it. Somehow, like those bands that were technically more crazy than good, like the Velvet Underground or the Sex Pistols, it just inspires. because it isn’t about technical perfection, its about something else. Maybe even, its about the crazy.
The DCC book, for more than just its 70s aesthetic, brings to mind that quote from my favorite author, Hunter S. Thompson: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production.”
The game is definitely a “high powered mutant” of D&D, and regardless of whether or not it succeeds in capturing the “Appendix N” style of play (if such a thing even exists) what it most certainly captures is OLD SCHOOL. And I know for a fact I’m going to play this game one day; and change a bunch of rules, and tweak others, and ignore some, and none of it will matter because this game will be glorious.
I can’t really give this game a 10. For technical reasons, and because very clearly, DCC will not be for everyone. I have a couple of players in my gaming group who have explicitly said to me “Let me know when you plan to run it, so that I can find something else to do those nights”. But those who will like it will LOVE it. On theRPGsite rating system, I have to give it a 9… but if I was grading on heart alone (or art alone, for that matter), it would earn an 11.
Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Full-Bent Billiard + Altadis Old Professor
(Originally posted february 21, 2013; on the old blog)