Game Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
Publisher: Goodman Games
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, Amazon, Goodman Games, or your FLGS
Hands down, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC) is the most successful OSR game currently on the market, and for good reason. As much a cult phenomenon as a TTRPG, DCC RPG is one of the most enjoyable games it has been my pleasure to play, and one of the most enjoyable RPG communities it has been my pleasure to get involved with.
To understand DCC's success it is important to talk about a shift in Dungeons and Dragons that occurred in the late 1980s. During the era of AD&D and BD&D, adventures and settings created by TSR were heavily informed by a particular story-telling style from pulp fiction,
It helps to understand that the clear lines between genres of fiction are a phenomenon of 1980s literary theory. Aside from "romance", "mysytery", and "westerns" pulp literature waa very nebulous. What we now call "Sword and Sorcery", "Science Fiction", "Horror", "Fantasy", "Superhero", or "Gothic" literature all borrowed from one another with abandon. Strange journeys through time and space to fight aliens, defy, pagan gods, talk to eternal supercomputers, and encounter mysterious wizards could all fit in the same book, without being considered confusing. Being a psychedelic adventure that blows your readers' minds and inspires the imagination were the highest goal.
The Face in the Abyss. The villains of the module, the now-iconic "Yuan-Ti," are named for the lost civilization of Yu-Atlanchi (ruled by an immortal snake-goddess) in that novel.
The intellectual vibrancy of Appendix-N constantly showed through in the wierd, exciting, experimental, and "gonzo" feel of AD&D / BD&D -era writing. By the release of AD&D2e in 1989, however, much of the Appendix-N influence had disappeared. Dungeons and Dragons became less about emulating Appendix-N and more about distilling a family-friendly essential D&D experience. After Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR and took the helm of the D&D line, Dungeons and Dragons became almost entirely self-referential, and lost its experimental feel.
|Cover to "Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: |
Idylls of the Rat King"
© 2006 Goodman Games
With the release of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, the malaise that struck D&D was devastating to Goodman Games. They suffered a severe sales decline and a loss in customer engagement. They also found that 4th Edition had drifted so radically from AD&D in structure that adapting TSR modules had become time-consuming and frustrating. The malaise infecting D&D inspired Joseph Goodman to go back to old manuals and try to understand what was missing from the new editions. This led down a rabbit-hole of exploring almost every title in Appendix-N.
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG was Goodman's answer to the self-referential, uninspired, and dull morass that he saw D&D becoming. He effectively went back to formula to recreate Dungeons and Dragons from the roots up.
DCC uses the d20 engine as its basis, as it was, at the time, one of the best-designed and most cohesive RPG engines available. However, he hacked out much of the modern dead weight, such as the skill system, attacks of opportunity, references to miniature grids, monster types, size modifiers, prestige classes, feats, etc.
e has replaced some of the removed mechanics with ideas from early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Skills are replaced with professions. Monsters are simplified. Fleeing creatures are subject to a free shot. Like in BD&D, non-human races are treated as their own classes with a mix of human class abilities and unique powers. Characters are randomly rolled with 3d6 down the line, and their hit points and profession rolled randomly.
|d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, & d30|
To further simplify the game, ability score bonuses are made consistent with BD&D ability tables, keeping bonuses to +/-3. Any mathematical modifier to a d20 above +/-4 is replaced by changing the die roll to a larger or smaller die along a dice chain. The dice chain in DCC includes the various Zocchi dice d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30 as well as the typical dice used in D&D.
DCC also includes new ideas to make it feel more like the stories presented in Appendix-N. Clerics have a built-in divine intervention power. Warriors have a "Mighty Deed of Arms" mechanic that lets them perform almost any wild, swashbuckling trick the PCs can name. Magic is wild, unpredictable, and can lead to horrible warping of mind & body. Luck is an expendable resource that is re-earned through exceptional play... with Thieves and Halflings having unique luck-driven abilities and the power to regenerate luck
With the help of Goodman's marketing acumen, DCC has exploded in popularity. It is estimated to have attracted away 8% of the D&D players who were actively playing Dungeons and Dragons 3e or 4e by 2014. Its fanbase is highly active in growing the game.
What I Loved
|"DCC #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea" cover|
by Doug Kovacs, © 2012 Goodman Games
DCC delivers on speed. Even combat-heavy funnel modules with parties of a dozen PCs like Sailors on the Starless Sea take only about four hours to run.
The emphasis on making rulings as opposed to having mountains of rules, a light skill system, and lot of community tools like the Crawlers Companion App also help keep the game rolling.
Keeping to the d20 engine means that resources from other games don't need much work to port in to DCC.
With spells being fairly simple to design it is easy to add custom content to the game. Almost all character abilities comng from their character class, which means building a custom class is the best way to create new PC options, and is also suprisingly simple.
I have seen some amazing mods made to DCC, including adapting the mutant animals from Eric Wujick's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG in Bronx Beast, to a system that recreates one of my favourite videogames Sunless Sea into a DCC setting.
The online DCC community is devoted and active. With podcasts like Spellburn and The Order of Shana, zines like Crawl! And The Gongfarmer's Almanac (among many others), multiple discord channels, and several fan-run cons, the sheer amount of content and information available to a DCC player or GM is staggering.
|"Spellcasting Dragon" by Peter Mullen,|
© 2012 Goodman Games
I am generally a .PDF guy, but I bought DCC RPG in hardcopy off of Amazon, and was not sorry I did. The paper is thick and sturdy, th binding stitched, and the cover is laminated. The ink is well-set and does not smudge. It reminds a great deal of an old Palladium manual, but with a much sturdier cover. I was amazed at the quality for $36 CDN. I was also pleasantly surprised by a sticker inside giving me a code to claim a free digital copy.
The rulebook for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is teeming with Art. Going two pages without seeing some truly amazing black and white line drawings is pretty rare in this book. It includes artwork from artists that worked on the original AD&D manuals, like Jim Roslof, and talented industry mainstays like Doug Kovacs. Every piece is interesting, strange, or evocative. Almost every shot is full of action. Much of the visual style it is built around imitating the Art of 1970s comics and Heavy Metal album covers. And all of it works towards bringing the weirdness of Appendix-N to life.
|"Gods of Chaos" by Peter Mullen,|
© 2012 Goodman Games
Since I purchased Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, I have received two free updated versions of the PDF so that my digital copy remains current. This isn't just fixing typos, etc.: Goodman Games changes the sample adventures in the book regularly, along with recent community photos and ads for online groups, community creations, etc., in the back.
And Goodman Games is very good at supporting and expanding community creations. People interested in producing DCC content can expect a lot of support from the Goodman Games team, including having their products be made available on Goodman's own storefront and advertised in the back of modules or the corebook.
Nobody does outreach and marketing quite like Goodman Games. These guys know how to get you excited for a product! Aside from founding Free RPG Day, and always participating in it on a dramatic fashion, Goodman Games also recently founded DCC Day as a way of supporting small game shops with live events, giveaways, and reduce costs on merchandise. They have also hosted cons both in person and online, such ad the recent Cyclops Con.
|Running 11 games earns a Judge a leather|
Dice bag and that year's "Wizard van" belt buckle.
Mighty Deeds of Arms
There are a lot of cool mechanics in DCC, but my favourite by far is the Mighty Deeds of Arms for Fighters and Dwarves. Both classes have a Deed Die ranging from 1d3 to 1d10+4 as the character levels. The die is added to attack and damage rolls in lieu of a base attack bonus. Before the die is rolled, as a part of an attack, the character may declare a Mighty Deed. This can be any cool manoeuvre the player can describe: tripping foes, disarming them, blinding them with a splash of blood, bringing a chandelier down on the foe, cleaving through multiple enemies... anything is permissible. If the Deed Die is 3 or higher, it happens - with a degree of success indicated by the die.
My players figured out very early on that there was never an excuse to simply say "I attack with my sword," when they could be tripping, stunning, shoving, and disarming their foes at no mechanical cost, and still do full damage. It has led to some incredibly creative and dynamic play. DCC is the first role-playing game in a very long time that makes me want to play a fighter.
The Dungeon Crawl Classics line of modules switched over to being written for DCC with #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea, which is an iconic adventure, and one of the best I have had the pleasure of reading.
Since then there have been 44 numerated modules, plus around 10 modules designed as sequels or companions to some of the more popular ones, and three settings: The Purple Planet, the Shuddering Hills (from the module The Chained Coffin), and Lankhmar, with 4-10 adventures for each. Not to mention dozens of con modules, sample modules cycled through the core book, etc. All in all, there are easily 80+ published adventures.
|DCC's iconic " Wizard Van" © 2012 Goodman Games|
DCC's modules perfectly recapture the wild-eyed psychedelic and vibrant feel of the early AD&D / BD&D modules, and are a pleasure to read. So much so that there are a lot of dedicated collectors out there.
Despite running on the d20 engine, there is no Challenge Rating system in DCC. It embraces the philosophy that for a realistic world, sometimes the PCs have to be allowed to get in over their heads. Even in published modules, the monsters that you can encounter will range from minor nuisances to a TPK on legs. Players have to keep their wits about them if they want to survive. Dying is easy in DCC, but often, it is a consequence of being careless.
Returning to life in DCC, on the other hand, is very difficult. Barring divine intervention, the only real opportunity most characters have is if the rest of the party is willingt o undergo an epic quest. Simply finding a diamond and casting "Raise Dead" won't do the trick. For the vast majority of PCs deaths are permanent.
|"The Death of Rat-Face Slipshot" by Doug Kovacs|
from Sailors on he Starless Sea, © 2012 Goodman Games
To help train players to think in an Old-School frame about the life and death of characters, most campaigns start with a level-0 funnel. In a funnel, players control 2-5 level 0 PCs with 1d4 hit points, no bonuses in combat, and gear only appropriate to their profession or what they can scrounge up by luck. By the end of a well-run funnel, players have at best 1 or 2 PCs left alive. The rest will perish cruelly as the players unlearn the lazy habits that a modern RPG might have taught them,
Level-0 funnels have an beautifully odd effect of making you feel a strange affection for your poor hapless peasant heroes. When you bring one out of the dungeon, even if they are absolutely not the PC you would have chosen, you often have a powerful bond with that character.
DCC is not afraid to be a little silly, weird, and whimsical in places. This is a major breath of fresh air for me as a guy who reads a ton of indie RPG material. Some days I am practically breathing grit.
|"Glipkerio's Gambit" cover by Doug Kovacs|
© 2015 Goodman Games
What I loved about Dungeons and Dragons 3e, was that it finally brought D&D into the modern age of RPGs by giving it a single, simple, and unified mechanic. To me, that was a major selling point, because I taught a lot of new players, and often DMed players who had a pretty sketchy grasp on the rules. The dozen or so disparate subsystems of AD&D didn't confuse me, but they sure as hell confused my players... and no wonder!
DCC may have been built on a backbone of D&D3e, but it didn't give a damn about preserving the slick, unified structure of d20. Spells, Turning Undead, and Mighty Deeds of Arms all have systems that allow for gradiated success - all of which are different. Luck uses the AD&D-style 1d20 roll-under stat check, while all the others use standard d20 + modifier roll-over a DC system. Even most d20 rolls add only one modifier and possibly shift dice one step on the dice chain, while attack rolls add two modifiers and can shift several steps.
The book is peppered with systems that don't fit together, so to learn it involves learning several different subsystems. It isn't that it is hard to learn per se, but there are enough exceptions to the d20 system that you will want to bookmark some pages.
DCC has done a ton to simplify d20: removing feats, prestige classes, races (except as classes), synergies, most bonus types, skills (except for Thieves), etc., and yet there are a lot of bits and pieces left over that no longer make sense, and should also have been trimmed. For example, the Attack of Opportunity still exists, but is useful in only a couple of cases: Mostly it is just there to reproduce the old D&D rule that if a target flees melee, creatures in reach get free attacks... and it might have been better phrased that way.
Some other example are:
- DCC is meant to be played with theatre of the mind, and yet has precise movement distances.
- Encumbrance is still handled by weighing individual items and tallying them against a STR-based carry weight.
- Intelligence and Personality have replaced INT, WIS, and CHA, with INT being the powers of perception, reason, and learning, and Personality being a characters charisma, empathy, and force of will. And yet perception checks are almost always ascribed to Personality.
There are a handful of ambiguous rules... such as whether or not Luck bonuses apply to spellcasting, that seem to be contradictory in different parts of the manual, or just plain vague. In an interview with Spellburn about whether or not those rules will be clarified, Joseph Goodman stated that there were some ambiguities left intentionally in the game; he believed that this would get Judges in the habit of making up their own minds about how the game ought to be played. I find this perspective, at best, annoying.
|"Magical Corruption over time" by Doug Kovacs,|
© 2012 Goodman Games
I like this, actually. A lot. Especially corrupting magic. That is not my complaint.
My complaint is that, often, the items on a spell's results table are only marginally related to one another. Sometimes you roll a result, and would rather have a different result for a lower roll. Some spells on the table let you do this, others make it so that you have to accept only the result you rolled, even if it is less helpful than a lower roll. It makes magic feel frustratingly out-of-control at times.
It is one thing to be semi-random. It is another to be so unpredictable, you feel lucky if your spell is even remotely useful.
Zocchi Dice are Hard to Get
Getting my hands on the "weird dice" is a pain in the behind. Many dealers don't ship to Canada, and many who do don't include d14s in their bundle. And don't get me started on cross-border shipping. I have given up on getting a set of Zocchi dice, because there is no way to buy them for less than $50. I satisfy myself either with silly dice formulae or using the Purple Sorcerer or Roll20 dice rolling programs. But virtual dice just aren't the same...
Somewhere shortly after AD&D2e came out, Dungeons and Dragons lost a part of its soul. It tried so hard to be a better, nicer D&D, it forgot that what it was originally intended to be was a way to wade deep into the strange worlds of Appendix-N.
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is what Dungeons and Dragons would have been if someone could have beamed 40 years of role-playing game design knowledge back in time into Dave Arenson and E. Gary Gygax's heads to 1974. It captures the spirit of playing D&D with the faster, simpler, cleaner game engines of 1999... but then swiftly stripped them of all respect for the idea of unified game engines.
And when it can, it turns up the weird and trippy up to 11. It wants PCs to feel epic from day 1. Riding dragons and sealing away elder gods shouldn't be reserved for high levels, and in DCC, they aren't.
But what really makes DCC special is the way its fans, its creators, and the larger RPG hobby intersect. It is a game that inspires passion in its players. Few games are better supported by both their creators and their players than DCC is. It serves as a constant laboratory for its players' imaginations.