Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: First Thoughts

Obviously the big news in this little corner of the blogosphere is that Goodman Games released the free beta of their forthcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, which has been highly anticipated by some (myself included).

Disclaimer; inasmuch as I am myself in the process of an open playtest of my own Adventures Dark and Deep rules, bear in mind that I do have a dog in this particular race. I shall do my utmost to be objective, but there is at least a certain level of competition between DCC and ADD. Not that I have a well-established game company producing my game, but still, I think it's worth saying.

Since it's just been released this morning, obviously I've not had time to read it in-depth, let alone play it, so this is purely a "first impressions" post. It must also be said that the free beta is not the complete game, but a subset thereof, without all the spells and monsters, or rules to go past 5th level, and presumably other rules as well. Just enough to give a feel for the game.

The first thing that strikes me is the art. There is a LOT of art in this book, some by classic TSR artists like Erol Otis, and other by newer artists. A lot of it has a very "old school" feel (much like Justice Stewart, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it). There are also flat-out cartoons sprinkled throughout, much as we saw in the old DMG. I won't quibble about the art itself, although I am ambivalent about the value of such things, but I will say that there is too much of it. It feels like almost every page is graced with an illustration of some sort (although some pages are given solely to a table), often to no real effect other than to show off the fact that there's an illustration. Many are full-page drawings, to boot. Half as many would, I think, be sufficient. (All interior artwork is b&w, by the way.)

Too, the cartoons, while a welcome nod to the old DMG (and something I intend to include in my own work when the time comes), are simply too plentiful. What gave them zing in the DMG was their scarcity, I think. There are a lot more of them in DCC, and I think it makes them lose their effectiveness, and alters the tone of the whole work.

Speaking of tone, there seems to be an internal struggle within the book as to whether it should be serious or light-hearted. While it certainly avoids the joke-on-every-page effect of Hackmaster, DCC does include more flat-out humorous or silly lines than a serious rulebook would have, while simultaneously not having as many as a purposefully funny rulebook would. Personally, I would prefer that the game set a tone and stick with it. The "Proclamation" in the beginning could have been lifted straight out of Hackmaster, for example. It's self-referential and unnecessary.

On the other hand, I do love the tone in regards to player expectations that the game sets. For example:
The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game assumes experience on the part of the judge. We assume you are competent in designing encounters, populating a dungeon, and finding challenges appropriate to your party’s level of play.
This is a great attitude, in my opinion. No "what is roleplaying?" section for this game. I applaud the sentiment that drove this being included. I also note with no small amount of pleasure the use of the term "judge" here. They're definitely hitting the right buttons on this score.

In terms of system, the game uses race-as-class, with elf, dwarf, and halfling as the non-human races, and the "big four" (warrior, cleric, wizard, thief) as classes. It does use ascending AC, but "unarmored" is AC 10, which I found a clever twist on an old fault-line. All spells require a check, which consists of a modified d20 rolled against a table specific to the spell being cast. There's a "luck" attribute. There are critical hits and fumbles, with tables that seem directly inspired by the old Arms Law tables by ICE. Combat (and other things, presumably) are done using "action dice", with characters getting certain dice determined by their level and other factors. A character might have a d20+d16 as action dice, meaning his first action is more likely to be successful than his subsequent one.

Which brings up a huge beef I have. DCC uses odd dice; d16, d7, etc. Why? Other than being outré for the sake of being outré, what does this gain anyone? Kind of like people who use the word "outré" rather than "bizarre".

(See that? How that last sentence sort of stood out because it was trying to be funny and self-deprecating in the midst of an otherwise-serious post? That's a sort of example of the tone thing I was talking about earlier.)

My last complaint is the "character funnel" concept. Each player is expected to roll up between 2 and 4 zero-level characters, and the one or two that survive is the one that gets played. Obviously I've not played through this idea with DCC, but zero-level characters were a dismal idea when Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana tried it, and I see nothing in DCC that improves upon the general idea. I don't want to play a butcher on his way to becoming a warrior, damnit. I want to play a warrior.

There also seems to be a slight discrepancy rules-wise. If I roll up a character, one of the things I'm supposed to roll randomly is his zero-level occupation. Unfortunately, some of those occupations are race-specific; halfling trader or elven sage, for example. What happens if I roll that but I want a dwarven character? The rules say if a player "has a strong sense of the character’s background in mind already" they don't need to roll for background. But it seems odd that the optional rule is the one that allows you to pick a race/class. I would think it would make more sense to have the random roll be the optional rule, "if you can't decide on the character's background", for instance.

Don't get me wrong, however. There is a lot of great stuff here. Lots of little things hither and yon that can instantly be applied to any game roughly of 0E or 1E's ilk; armor penalties for ability checks and saving throws, for example, or the critical hit/fumble tables could be used as-is. I've not read them carefully through, but the rules for "spell duels" could probably be adopted whole-cloth as well. Plus dozens of other bits and pieces large and small. The layout (with the exception of the excessive artwork as noted above) is easy to read and the organization seems at first glance to be well thought-out.

There are also some concepts here that I like on the surface, but haven't had a chance to read in-depth and try in practice. The notion that magic is dangerous and expensive is a good one, and there's some room for the concept of "mercurial magic" (where each caster rolls to determine how any given spell will work for him), although I'm not sure I'd make it a universal rule. The otherworldly patrons idea is one that is long overdue, and combat seems to strike a nice balance between tons of options and stultifying minutiae, but again until I see it on the table, it's hard to make a definitive decision.

Overall, while there are some decisions in terms of layout and content that I would have made differently, it is quite obvious that DCC is a very well thought-out work, and a lot of love and attention has gone into it. I would certainly play it myself if given the opportunity, and while there are a lot of elements in there I would use in my own home game, I'm not sure I'd want to give up my own home rule set for this one, even if it wasn't one I was writing myself. DCC is absolutely worth the time to read through the free beta download, and I'd give up more than a single afternoon to play a game. If the full version is of a similar ilk to the free beta, I will definitely be picking it up and seeking it out at conventions to sit in as a player.


Geek Gazette said...

I just saw your post, very good review. You are a little more kind that I am, but to each his own. Of course I may give it another read just to be sure I'm being fair. Still it is hard for me to get past the use of those dice, which are not cheap, that just rubs me the wrong way. Yes I know that you can get around the dice and use standard dice, but the point is you shouldn't have to.

Eric said...

I really agree with your comments on the art, a little to much seems to "pad" the pages of a book.

Also I'm a little concerned about the odd dice, and from what I understand table heavy rule set.


JasonZavoda said...

I'm a 1e AD&D players so the DCC rulebook interests me for what I can pillage from it and what adventures will hopefully be produced for the system.

The abundance of artwork is therefore a big plus for me since it is one of the most easily useful components of the book. Otherwise I agree with your objections to the system, and most of its innovations just seem to be houserules that I've seen in various magazines, websites and such over the years.

I am hoping that the system is used to produce more DCC modules without the ponderous stat blocks and such of other game systems. The DCCrpg looks like it will allow easy conversions over to 1e.

Scott said...

Thanks for the update! It's cool that they have released the beta version, so that we can peruse it.

Dungeon Quests

Fabio Milito Pagliara said...

it seem a little too much also to me, but I have to read and try it a little more

Hedgeknight said...

As others have stated, the weird dice rules are a turn off, as are the 0-level characters. But, the artwork is killer! I can use a lot of that for my game, plus the crit table was pretty cool. Lots of good stuff to plunder. And since the PDF is free...that makes it a very nice find!