Goodman Games was one of the early d20 startups, and like most of them, their products initially revolved around the company's own setting. In their case, it was "Broncosaurus Rex", a setting combining the civil war, steampunk, and intelligent dinosaurs. Although actually quite an interesting mix, this was fairly quickly dropped in the pursuit of other products, including the Dungeon Crawl Classics line of adventure modules, which are meant to be in the spirit of the old TSR modules for D&D and AD&D. This decision was probably wise, as most other d20 startups are long gone while Goodman Games continues to thrive, or at least continue to put out a large number of products, including 1-2 Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) per month. While they still put out other products, the DCC line is what they are famous for these days.
Originally though, the DCCs were meant to be generic, that is, no real implied setting at all, and could be dropped into almost any world without a problem (which was largely true in practice, although some modules were based on Mesoamerican or Middle Eastern cultures and thus might not fit the average D&D setting). But apparently once there were so many of them, they decided to make a setting out of them. And so this product, DCC #35 was born.
The Product Itself
It's a boxed set and consists of 2 large-ish books (1 120 pages, 1 136 pages), 2 smaller 32 page modules, and a number of maps. Going by the page count the price ($69.99, $47 @ Amazon.com) is a bit high, but I guess when you consider the 32 page modules as going for about $12 each, it's a bit more reasonable. Not to mention, the 4 fold out color maps. Still, too much for my blood until I managed to trade my copy of Rappan Athuk: Reloaded for it.
(Cat* Not Included)
The setting is basically described in the two larger books. One is a Gazetteer, the other is a GM's guide (which has "secrets" of the various places, monsters, some NPCs, the list of gods, etc). Unfortunately, both are actually almost unreadable, because there the paper's background art is very dark and very detailed with a lot of squiggly lines, and the typeface is rather light (grey instead of black). The Gazetteer is actually worse than the GM's guide, I really struggled to read it, but the GM's guide is no great shakes, either. The best way to describe is like those entry the right letter tests when you sign up for a website or something, used to prevent 'bots from signing up.
(Hard to show the problem with the background art in a photo, because it's dependant on the light. Lowlight it's worse, bright light it's better)
Anyway, once you get past that, the setting is basically divided up into 3 regions. The Northlands, the Southlands, and the Lostlands. The Northlands coresponds to the typical D&D setting, that is, based on western Europe. The Southlands is quite a bit more interesting, it's based on Mesoamerican cultures. The Lostlands seems mostly inspired by Egypt and Middle Eastern cultures.
In fact, if you want to visualize the setting, spatially, that's about where they are set. If you imagine the Northlands as Western Europe, the Southlands lie to the southwest, about where South America would be (if a bit closer), while the Lostlands are to the southeast (where the Sahara and Egypt would be) and east (Western Asia). There's even something of an analog to the British Isles, a large island just offshore to the NW of the main Northlands, and full of unrully, Celtic like people (or maybe Picts). On the other hand, it's not perfect, part of the "Northlands" is actually quite south, the western coast of the southern continent (where part of the Lostlands), basically akin to say, Gibraltar and the west coast of Africa.
Although this is the largest section of this book at around 40 pages, nothing much really jumped out at me in the Northlands. You have a fading empire with a fairly unpronounceable name (Criestine Empire - at least 8 different pronunciations I can think of, and none are given in the text, and unfortunately, I can't help but think of it as the toothpaste empire**) and its various kingdoms/provinces, some of which have seceded or are independent.
Another kingdom has been invaded by a humanoid horde. Curiously, the free region of this area supposedly consists of 3 cities. However, the 3 cities have a total population of about 60,000 combined, while the region supposedly has a total population of 1.7 million. Which is fine for say, medieval Europe, but pretty much every square inch of Europe in medieval times was full of farming peasants. Doesn't seem suitable for a war torn region. And really, that same sort of demographics seems to apply for the entire Northlands, which implies that there really isn't much wilderness.
The Southlands are more interesting. Like I said, they are based on Mesoamerican culture (mostly Aztec, looks like), although a much less bloodthirsty one than in the real world. The area apparently used to be ruled by Snakemen (called the Drakon, basically the Yuan Ti with the numbers filed off), but the humans revolted. The snake people are still around, but there are 7 cities of mesoamerican like human, the Xulmec, along with a colony of the Criestine empire). This area only gets about 20 pages, though. Also weird that you get a guide to pronouncing "Xulmec", which really only has one obvious pronounciation ("Shul-mec"), since everyone (at least D&D players) knows that "X" = "Sh" in that context and there are only two vowels
Lastly is the Lostlands. It used to be a part of the world ruled over by Sphinxes. It basically resembles the Middle East and Asia. It gets around 15 pages.
Some of it it fairly straightforward, but you have some twists. Like for instance, there are Japanese like Dwarves (the nation of Taijin), and the Mongols are Wild Elves. (Sort of a reversal of Sovereign Stone, where the Dwarves are the Mongols and the Elves are Japanese). Also some other stuff like a city of golems, a big crater full of drow
(The demographics of this region tend to tilt the other way, everyone lives in a city, no one in the wilderness)
Since the nations of the world is covered in just under 80 pages, there's obviously not a whole lot of detail.
This fills up about 10 pages. Most of the actual geological features (rivers, plains, mountains) are boring, but there are a couple pages on various famous dungeons. That is pretty interesting.
This takes up about 20 pages. All sorts of groups. From cults to knightly orders to guilds. Just descriptions, nothing like prestige classes or stat blocks for the group themselves.
The GM's Guide
This is a rather curious mix. Most of the gods are not from our world but completely fictional, but two are taken from Zoroastrianism - Ahriman and Ahura Mazda. Which I must point out, still exists today and is more common than you might think (I have relatives who are, a friend in high school's family was, and one of my teachers in college was). Okay, not super-common, but still common enough that some might find it offensive. And it's ironic that a religion that was basically the pioneer of dualistic theism, has its 2 gods used with a host of others).
Beyond those two, there are a lot of gods. Many of the others are inspired by different cultures. There are a number of Mesoamerican-ish gods, with Aztec sounding names. And one somewhat Cthulhu Mythos-ish (Zhuhn and the Outer Gods). Some names are apparently borrowed from the real world, but slightly altered. For instance, Pelagia, who in this case is the goddess of the sea, but in the real world can be confused with Pelagianism, a variant of Christianity. Or Aristemis, a goddess with a bow, but unlike Artemis is not a hunting goddess, but one of diplomacy and strategy.
Honestly, since they went with the two historic gods, I think they probably should have gone with actual Mesoamerican, Greek and Norse and whatever gods as well, rather than coming up with weirdly named variants. But I guess since they were cobbled together from all the various DCCs, it couldn't be helped.
The 25 pages of this chapter includes a variety of new monsters, including a number of Mesoamerican critters, a few new variants on standard D&D monsters, like a Azure Ooze and a Crystal Golem, the Drakon (their replacement for Yuan Ti, which is one of the D&D monsters not in the final SRD and so off limits to 3rd party companies without special permission, but were in the draft SRD and so made it into some modules, including I would guess some early DCCs).
I'm not really going to go into their stats, since that's not really my thing, but I was puzzled by a few things for the playable character races. I'm not an expert on such things, but a number of them are playable. Usually (I thought), when a race had racial levels (basically hit dice), they were equal to that races level adjustment.
For instance, a +3 Level Adjustment race would have 3 racial hit dice. So that when a you would have a character of x level, they would have an appropriate amount of total hit dice for that level. There are a few cases where they don't jibe. The most egregious is the thunder giant, which is a +10 level adjustment, but gets a whopping 24 racial hit dice. Granted, it would only come up when you have a campaign starting at 11th level (or are making a replacement character), but getting 24d8 seems like a heck of a deal.
(Then again, maybe that's a 3.5 thing. In 3.0, which I basically still use, racial hit dice generally = ECL or Level Adjustment)
About 20 or so pages is devoted to new rules for the setting. New equipment (Mesoamerican style stuff, mostly, but a few others), new spells, feats, domains, etc. Nothing really outlandish or all that notable.
Another 20 pages is devoted to famous characters of the setting. These get about a paragraph of description, and the basic stats (class, level and any notable ability scores). A number of them do get portraits, which is a nice touch, except they are really more like caricatures, which I'm not sure I like.
This section does really help the setting feel more alive, but at the same time, there is a certain sameness to some of the NPCs. Especially the female ones, they're all basically cut from the same cloth (almost all of them have a high charisma, too). And in many cases, it's hard to tell just where they are based in, you have to be very familiar with the setting to know where they are.
For the most part, it makes good use of 3.5 prestige classes like the duelist (for the many pirate chicks) and the eldrich knight (for Fighter/Arcane Spellcasters). The only real exception is the big bad guy of the setting, or at least the Northlands, who is a Figther 12/Sorcerer 9th, which seems like a waste.
There's a short chapter on Zero level characters. Basically 1st level characters with NPC classes. I think it's a bit vague in explaining how advancement works (see my note below in the part about the included 0-level Module).
Lastly there is are several pages listing possible "adventure paths" using DCCs. That is, groups of modules played in order that take the PCs from level 1 (or 0) to 20 (or almost to it, 15+). Why? It's sort of the "in" thing these days among D&D/d20 modules.
I guess part of the reason the boxed set is so expensive, is that it comes with a number of big, full color maps (3 big maps meant for the DM to stick together, and 1 Player's Map, which shows the "known" part of the world on one sheet).. Which would be great, except honestly, the maps are nothing special. They aren't ugly, but they don't make you say "Wow, what a great map", they look something you'd find in an atlas or textbook. And for some reason, they aren't hex mapped, either. I don't know how you could have a setting that is supposedly old school, and not have hex maps.
The weird thing is, you never actually see the world in the books (except the background art). So it's really hard to get a bearing on the world without having the maps open and in front of you, which isn't exactly convienent. Especially if you have cats (who just have to see what that big sheet of paper is). It really would have been nice to have a small sized version of the map in either of the booklets, maybe with a small regional pic in each entry in the Gazetteer.
The Adventures (caution some spoilers)
Halls of the Minotaur
This is a zeroth level adventure. Goodman already did one of this, DCC#0, basically the PCs are all 1st level characters with NPC classes, which means they are roughly 1 level lower than PCs (and thus zero level).
In that adventure, the pre-generated characters were sort of twinked out, that is, they were 1st level NPC class characters, but had high stats and some nice items, which made their fairly capable. This still has somewhat high stats, but not overly so, and the characters start off with basically nothing (basically equipped like medieval peasants).
Anyway, part of the tricky bits of 1st level adventures, and especially in something like this, is that characters are pretty fragile, and you have to make sure they don't fight anything that can take out a character in one round on average. This adventure does a pretty good job of it, except for the end fight, which is (shockingly!) with a Minotaur.
The Minotaur is wounded, but he still does quite a bit of damage in the attack, enough to take out a character on average, much less a high roll or critical. And he's pretty much always going to hit.
So clearly, the PCs won't win in a stand up fight with him. Which the module points out, and gives ideas on how to deal with him in other ways. But at the same time, that's the sort of thing that experienced players would know, not beginner players. So the DM might have to do some hand holding. And also, beginner players might find it anti-climatic, getting to the final boss, then not being able to actually fight it.
(Though I should note, that the players earn at least 10,000 xp or so combined (and thus likely 2000 xp each if 5 characters) by the time they get to the Minotaur's part of the module, which should be enough to let them from from "0" (starting at -1000 xp) to 2nd level (1000), although the mechanics of this are not really explained. In the GM's Guide it says upon reaching 0 xp (from -1000), they can take a PC class, but it's not explained if that's in addition to their NPC level, or replaces it. So if they get another level and then another one at 1000 xp, they could have 3 character levels, 2PC/1NPC.)
The Thief Lord's Vault
This is set in the city of "Punjar" in the Northlands, a city full of thieves. Basically, it's the dungeon and vault of the head of the city's thieves' guild. Lots of fairly nasty traps for the most part, though later on there are a few minions of the thief lord. Although it's aimed at 4th-6th level characters, it's very much aimed for expert players who know what they are doing.
This dungeon itself is actually interesting, and most of the traps are well done. However, the module itself doesn't make sense from a logical standpoint (okay, that's true of a lot of dungeons, but this even more so). Why would a 17th or so level Thief Lord store his treasure in a dungeon that 4th-6th level characters could make it through? And considering the city is full of thieves, most of them higher level than the PCs, why hasn't the vault already been plundered? For that matter, why didn't the CE guards in the vault decide to take the money and skip out? They already know most of the secrets of the vault, and sort of a secret egress.
So anyway, neither adventure was bad, but neither knocked my socks off, either.
As mentioned, the 2 large books have the background art on each page which makes it very hard to read. Other than that though, it's a pretty straight forward book.
The art for the most part is not terribly impressive. Goodman has employed a number of excellent artists in their other DCCs, including some famous ones like Erol Otus and Jim Holloway. None of them appear here, though. The artists aren't bad, but most are definitely "B" list or lower. (I really hate to say that, since when I write a review, I do often hear from artists, but it's true. )
I've been playing D&D since the late 70s. Back when I was a kid, I remember the feeling my friends and I got when Greyhawk came out, how magical it was, especially looking at the map and all the wondrous places on it, and places we wanted our characters to explore. So perhaps nothing can live up to that. But I almost pretty much completely missed out on Mystara (the setting for Basic/Expert/etc D&D) until the late 90s, and when I discovered that, I loved it. I even liked some of the 2e AD&D settings, like Birthright and always liked Spelljammer. And while I hated it, I at least thought Planescape was quite distinctive.
So what I'm getting at, is the setting just really left me cold. Didn't do much for me at all. Still, it's pretty inoffensive compared to other d20 settings. It's not as boring as Kalamar (and while the names in this aren't easy to pronounce, they aren't nearly the tongue twisters like in Kalamar), not as "kewl" as Eberron, not full of seemingly randomly generated gibberish like the Wilderlands, not full of munchkins like Forgotten Realms, not whatever it is Arcanis is (strangely, although they are still making d20 stuff, I don't own a single product from Paradigm, and I probably have well over 200 d20 books).
So, if you absolutely must have a setting, this is perhaps the least worst of the choices (although for all its randomness at times, the Wilderlands is far more old school, more detailed, and certainly more interesting). But really you'd probably be better off just making your own from scratch, which is quite common for D&D and not that hard. Only the Southlands is really interesting, and that is perhaps too derivative of real world Aztec culture, rather than simply inspired.
Even if you actually like the setting provided, the scant detail really doesn't offer much you couldn't come up on your own by piecing the various DCC's together yourself - basically you just get the "glue" which sticks the DCCs together, not really any detail to help you run a game in any one location. So I'm not sure the value you get from this is all that great.
And while they have DCCs in the works up to at least #50, I have no idea if we will ever see any regional sourcebooks or the like. So if you get this, you are likely on your own if you ever want more detail.
Beyond that,the poor readability of the 2 main books really hurts. It's not overly apparent in my photo - it really depends on the lighting conditions. In bright light it's legible because the background art sort of fades, but the lower the light, the more the background art shows up. Reading outside is okay, but I struggled to read it in bed at night with just a small 75 watt table lamp.
So all in all, I have to give it a C-. On a 1-5 scale, probably a 2.5, although rounding up. If not for the readability problem, I would give it a C+, or 3.5, and round down. So a 3 it is.
(Legal Note: Photos of the various pages and maps are used under the "fair use" provision of copyright law. And an excuse to use my new digital camera. Which actually takes much better pictures, but I downsized them to be much smaller)
* Yes, like most male black cats, his name is Edgar
** No doubt secretly run by a cabal of Walruses.