Friday, April 6, 2012

11 Years Later, and We're Still Nowhere Close

On this day in 1968, one of, if not the greatest science fiction film of all time debuted. I was but a wee lad of 2, but seeing this movie in the theater is one of my earliest memories.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: First Impressions

Folks who pre-ordered the Dungeon Crawl Classics game from Goodman Games got their link to download the accompanying .pdf version last night, and I've had a chance to look mine over. Note that I've not done a thorough cover to cover reading, nor have I played the game, but I did glean enough to get some first impressions.

My overall impression is that this is going to be one raucous game to play.

Some of the basics; the rules and appendices are 450 pages, and the book has an additional 38 pages with a sample adventure, some ads, and some additional artwork. Layout is generally two columns, justified, which is perfectly fine for my middle-aged eyes. Sometimes the layout is broken to accommodate some larger or irregularly shaped piece of art, but I didn't have any issue with that. The art itself is numerous and varying in quality, being done by a variety of different artists (including the late Jim Rosloff, to whom the book is dedicated, and whose last 4 pieces of art are found within). There's a mix of serious and silly, including actual cartoons with captions, but not nearly as much artistic silliness as, say, Hackmaster. I love the inclusion of actual cartoons, which harkens back to the old Dungeon Master's Guide.

The structure is fairly conventional; there are sections on the various character classes (cleric, thief, warrior, wizard, elf, dwarf, halfling-- yes, this game has race-as-class), a brief section on skills, then equipment, and then combat. Combat's worth mentioning because it features numerous and graphic critical hit and fumble tables that are quite reminiscent of the old ICE Arms Law/Rolemaster ones. There are also rules for spell duels, where wizards are able to directly counter one anothers' spells in the middle of combat. Then there's a chapter on magic, complete with spell descriptions. There's a section on quests and journeys, judge's rules, magic items, and finally monsters.

The monster section has a particularly excellent section on the difference between "the" and "a" monsters. Does the world have more than one cockatrice? Does it matter to someone who's never ventured more than a few miles from where he was born? Great, short but thought-provoking stuff like that is found throughout the book.

The character classes only go up to level 10, which we are informed is a plateau that should only be reached two or three times in an epoch, and when it does happen, indicates the characters are at the status of a demigod. Level 5 seems to be the normal expected maximum in the game, and requires 490 x.p. to achieve. Given that "an extremely difficult encounter involving multiple fatalities" is worth 4 x.p., it'll probably take most gamers a little getting used to the lower scale of experience points. Sort of like playing a 1960's pinball machine today. There is a nice section on awarding x.p. for non-combat activities, with specific examples for each class.

While there are a plethora of random tables, the real meat of the game are the spell tables, which most people have been talking about. 83 wizard spells (out of a total of 716, we are told) are detailed, plus 36 cleric spells, and 15 "patron spells", which wizards can attempt to cast at the behest of a supernatural patron. Dealing with such is dangerous, though, as they may exact a high price for their assistance.

And that can be said of most magic spells; it's potentially dangerous. Every spell requires a roll on a table specific to that spell. Results can range from corruption (where the wizard is physically deformed by the casting of the spell) to simple failure, and then a range of increasingly-powerful effects. The die roll is modified by the level of the spell and the level of the caster. To take but one example, spider climb can fail and make the caster simply stick to the floor, unable to move, or could cause him to grow spider legs from his back and climb with great agility. Spectacular success means that both the caster and those around him can climb and cast spells like a spider for a day. Spells are semi-Vancian; the caster may or may not lose the spell once cast, depending on the die roll.

Each spell is also customized for each caster by means of what is called "mercurial magic", where the wizard rolls percentile dice the first time he learns the spell, and that determines the effect that spell has when cast. It could be that when my wizard casts spider climb, there is an accompanying clap of thunder, while when your wizard casts it, someone close to him dies. Once rolled, the effect is permanent for that spell and that wizard.

As I say, I've not had a chance to play the game, but I could see it being a tad too random for an ongoing campaign. The wild and woolly randomness of the magic system could be great fun for a one-off adventure or a convention game, but might grow frustrating when you're trying to pull your wizard character up to second level. Or your warrior character, for that matter; some of the spell misfire effects will affect your companions. My fighter could end up with the head of a chicken for three days because you blew a roll. In fact, that's even the subject of one of the illustrations in the rules. I kid you not.