Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Free RPG Day: Dungeon Crawl Classics

On June 17th, 2017, I became a huge fan of the Dungeon Crawl Classics system by Goodman Games. Let me tell you a little bit about it.

Last year for Free RPG Day I was asked by our local game store, Adventure Games & Hobby, to run a game from one of the sponsoring publishers. I chose to run the free module put out by Goodman Games. I was unfamiliar with their system, DCC, and being a creature of habit I ended up doing a simple conversion to run it under 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. The games I ran went well as Goodman Games has a reputation for putting together modules that rely less on game mechanics and more on the cleverness of the people at the table. But a big part of me wished I had given it a try under the intended system.

Free RPG Day came around again, and this year I decided I would run the Goodman Games free module but this time I would do so using DCC. I got my hands on a copy of the core rulebook and instantly recognized elements that reminded me of old school D&D.

The Art
DCC has a very vintage feel that is evoked by the black and white images of evil wizards summoning demons and brave adventuring parties camping under moonlight. A quick look at the credits on the inside cover reveals that a few of the contributors are in fact old school fantasy artists. Featured are the works of Jeff Easley, who did the cover illustration for the AD&D Player's Handbook, and Erol Otus who did the art on the box of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set

Character Creation and "The Funnel"
In DCC, there is no need for elaborate backstories because characters are generated in under five minutes with modest roots. These "level 0" characters are generated randomly with six ability scores (strength, agility, stamina, personality, intelligence, and luck), are assigned a random occupation (butcher, cheesemaker, beekeeper, etc.), and a few random pieces of equipment. Players initially roll up several of these characters and are advised to treat them like stray dogs that have wandered into the yard: don't name them lest ye become attached. 

The reason for this is this motley crew of aspiring adventurers will soon enter an introductory adventure module called a "funnel." During the course of the funnel, it is expected that many of the characters will die. The hope is that enough of them will survive their first quest and become a full fledged level 1 character with a class at the end.

Classes in DCC follow the mold of the original D&D game. If the character hits level 1 and they had a race assigned to their character by their occupation (such as dwarf, elf or halfling) then this becomes their assigned class. If they were a human, they have the choice of selecting warrior, thief, wizard or cleric.

Half-orcs and half-elves not included.

A unique feature of DCC is the ability statistic of luck. Luck impacts a number of skill checks that may be called for and a randomly chosen circumstance at character creation (such as modifying a turn undead check or ranged attack rolls). Luck can also be burned for additional bonuses on a d20 roll either for a skill check or an attack roll. It adds a certain degree of whimsy to the game and provides epic moments during high stress scenarios that the characters find themselves in.

Random Tables
One of my favorite aspects to the game is the inclusion of many random tables which add a certain unpredictability to the game for both the game master and the players. Critical hit and fumble charts add interesting elements for combat. Spellcasting always requires a spell check with each individual spell having its own chart of outcomes. Clerics must be mindful of the amount of casting they do, for doing so carries the risk of earning the disapproval of their deity.

Spoiled alert: Everyone dies.

The Portal Under the Stars
The first game I ran for Free RPG Day led a group of 15 would-be-heroes to chasing the tale of Old Man Roberts. Upon his death bed, he told of a time from his youth when a portal opened up at the old stone mounds outside of town when the Empty Star had shown brightly in the sky. The star could be seen once again for the first time in fifty years and the moment was ripe to enter the portal's dungeon and earn fame and wealth.

The party stepped foot inside the portal and down a corridor they went (room 1). A lone door stood in their path, so Oink the dwarf herder boldly stepped forward to bash in the door. His athleticism paid off, but four mechanical statues on the other side (room 2) armed with spears discharged their weapons and poor Oink was left a bearded pincushion. Poor Oink.

The party pushed on forward and found themselves in an enormous chamber with a giant stone statue that stood on a swiveling base (room 3). The statue's outstretched pointed hand seemed to follow anyone who entered. The anxiety of the party began to grow as they sensed doom upon the air. Chauncey was a snooty noble who had orchestrated the raid into the portal by filling the commoner's minds with thoughts of riches down at the Muddy Pig Tavern. He ordered his squire, Ilsobet, through one of the doors. Ilsobet no more than had one foot past the threshold and an arc of flame shot from the statue's hand and burned the obedient servant to ash.

Oink had brought his prized pig down into the dungeon. The party decided to send it through a door as a means of experimenting with the trapped statue. They pushed the pig through the door and moments later the smell of bacon filled the ancient halls.

Even the dungeon maps are far out, man.

Griff the butcher had just about had enough. Armed only with his cleaver and a side of beef, he took the raw meat he had packed with him as a snack for later and did his best to cork it right over the giant statue's hand. Apparently he wanted to create a literal meat shield so that others might be able to cross into the other chamber. He instructed others to cross the door's threshold and soon the room was covered in well-done beef shrapnel. The plan however worked, and the rest of the party crossed through into the next area (room 6).

A pool of water was laid inside the floor of this columned room. The presence of strange crystaline creatures unnerved the party, but they soon discovered they were drawn to light the way a moth flutters mindlessly towards a candle. They lit some wood on fire in a corner of the room which drew the creatures away from them. They made their way towards a staircase set behind an archway in the corner of the room and headed down (room 7).

The next chamber was set up like a war room with dozens of miniature figures on landscapes. Whoever was the master of this place clearly had a mind for military tactics and planning. After collecting a few of the silver figurines that depicted the generals, they headed through a door that led into a scene that would remind one of Qin Shi Huang's Terra Cotta Army.

The massive 45' by 80' room had a deep trench down the middle which held 70 full-sized clay warriors. Standing over the trench on the opposite side from the characters were seven clay statues that looked identical to the silver general miniatures the group pilfered from the previous room. And behind the commanding officers was a dias that held a throne and a giant statue identical to the swiveling pig slayer from earlier. Above the throne was a glowing orb.

The clay warriors started to move and climb out of the trench with violent intentions. The party moved into position, some to hold the line so that others could move to the opposite end and inspect the throne and the orb. The only character with a ranged weapon was a nameless trapper armed with a sling. As the front line was getting slaughtered by the onslaught of the clay warriors, he hurled stones at the glowing orb until it cracked and shattered. Unfortunately, this was not the source of animation the group was looking for.

As I continued to stamp the word "DECEASED" on character sheets at an alarming rate, Leo the Elf sage ordered some of the survivors into the previous room where they tipped up a table and used it as a barricade. Soon the room began to fill up with clay warriors marching mechanically towards them. At the other end of the great hall, a brave woodcutter named Deano hacked away at the large statue, eventually rolling a critical hit and decapitating the idol and ending the animation on the army.

This is what you do when you leave your 70 terra cotta warrior figures at home.

The party noticed the lack of treasure, and they certainly hadn't sacrificed so many to leave empty handed. They searched around for a secret door and sure enough they found the treasure vault. Of the 15 original party members, 6 walked away with gold in their pockets and stories to tell back at the Muddy Pig Tavern. Old Man Roberts would have been proud.

Final Thoughts
Needless to say, I feel hooked on DCC. Everything from the art to the game design achieve a return to 1974 style gaming with added details that make it more interesting. After running countless 5th Edition D&D games the past several years, this system brings back the feeling of gritty survival and random unpredictability I experienced in my few times with older table top systems. While I imagine many players would be turned off by having to play a single randomly generated character, making it through the funnel creates some emotional attachment to the one who survives. It avoids the many things I hate about Pathfinder in that the rules aren't over-complicated and full of cumbersome mechanics that get in the way of storytelling. I would still prefer 5th Edition D&D over DCC for a narrative intensive game. However, when you want to do a one-shot dungeon crawl or need to organize a pick-up game because someone can't make it for the main campaign, this will be a perfect option. I look forward to running many DCC games with my groups in the future.

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