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Thursday, 31st May, 2012, 06:22 AM #1
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Review of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG by Goodman Games
“Old School” is one phrase being kicked around the D&D roleplaying game community quite a bit these days. With the advent of the D&D Next Open Playtest, numerous message boards, blog sites, and articles have been very quickly transforming the concept of “Old School Heroic Fantasy gaming” into a hot internet meme.
And there has been quite a bit of lively debate of what “Old School” gaming is like, what it should be like, and what are its defining characteristics - a debate which has focused almost exclusively around the still developing Next edition of Dungeons & Dragons. And there are many differing viewpoints on the topic, given the long history and varied game systems that have been used over the years to role play out “swords & sorcery” adventures.
But it appears that some in the RPG Community have been contemplating the nature of “Old School” Heroic Fantasy gaming far longer than a certain group of designers in Washington state. Goodman Games has recently published a roleplaying game system which claims to be an avatar of “Appendix N” fantasy novels (a reference here to the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide). Released as a beta back in June of 2011 and subjected to hours of playtesting at a number of conventions around the USA, the official version of Dungeon Crawl Classics hit the shelves this Spring, and is apparently ready to put the “Old School” back into roleplaying once again!
Dungeon Crawl Classics
- Designers: Joseph Goodman (lead), Tavis Allison, Andy Frielink, Todd Kath, Doug Kovacs, Harley Stroh, Steven Thivierge, Dieter Zimmerman
- Illustrators: Jeff Dee, Jeff Easley, Jason Edwards, Tom Galambos, Friedrich Haas, Jim Holloway, Doug Kovacs, Diesel Laforce, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Jesse Mohn, Peter Mullen, Russ Nicholson, Erol Otus, Stefan Poag, Jim Roslof, Chad Sergesketter, Chuck Whelon, Mike Wilson
- Publisher: Goodman Games
- Year: 2012
- Media: PDF or Hardbound (470 pages)
- Cost: $24.99 (PDF from RPGNow)
The production quality of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG was frankly stunning, with an excellently designed layout to provide a gamer with everything needed to play the game, whether a Player or a Judge. The manual and rules have a logical and clear flow throughout the book, and the writing is sharp, creative, and often humorous, which made reading the content both very enjoyable and memorable.
Usually I just receive a PDF version for my review, but this time, I received a hard-bound version of the book as well. And let me say that the sheer volume of the – and no other word really applies here – tome containing the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG simply cannot be adequately visualized from viewing just the PDF. The book is hardbound, very solid, and about the size of a phonebook - and I’ll admit I actually enjoyed the dense heft of it as I lugged the huge tome around the house, reading through it in preparation for the review!
But it’s the illustrations that will really launch “old school” gamers into nostalgic reverence, because the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is packed with sketches and black & white line art utterly evocative of the roleplaying game products of the late 70s and 80s era. When you have a book containing artwork by Jim Easley (AD&D Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, Monster Manual), Erol Otus (AD&D Fiend Folio, Deities & Demi-gods), and the late Jim Roslof (AD&D Keep on the Borderlands, Queen of the Demonweb Pits, White Plume Mountain, etc.), and others, you’re going to have no choice but get all reminiscent and wistful about it if you’ve ever had any contact with the oldest editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
A Total Dungeon Crawl Experience
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (DCC RPG) begins with the authors telling you what the book is, and what it is not, with respect to Dungeons & Dragons of any edition. The authors offer a quick and blunt explanation of the game, explaining how this is meant to be enjoyed by “…a fantasy enthusiast of imaginative mind, familiar with the customs of role playing, understanding the history and significance of the Elder Gods Gygax and Arneson and their cohorts Bledsaw, Holmes, Kask, Kuntz, Mentzer, and Moldvay, and knowledgeable of the role of ‘judge’ and the practice of ‘adventure.’ ”
In other words - a “grognard”.
However, I use this term with respect, because DCC RPG does offer a fresh look at the older versions of games from the “fantasy roleplaying genre”, with all the old polyhedral dice fun (including odd dice like d14, d16, and d30), as well as copious random charts. But it also adds some mechanics which, while tracing their lineage back to the “old school”, have a certain indie game edge to them – which to me was an instantly intriguing concept.
There are seven character classes in DCC RPG which are familiar to anyone who played OD&D, Red Box, Expert, and AD&D. Four are taken from the iconic character classes – Cleric, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard – while the remaining three are racial classes – Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. However, before a player can even choose a character class to play, he has to create a 0-Level character first. Actually, make that several 0-Level characters.
DCC RPG uses what the author refers to as the “character funnel” method for character creation. Players roll the ubiquitous 3d6 dice to generate six stats (Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personality, Intelligence and Luck) in order, and then roll on a random table to determine their occupation as a starting 0-Level character. Characters select alignments of Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral, which have very real effects in their fortunes, and some starting trade goods and cash. Random occupations include such skills as Ropemaker, Gravedigger, and Cobbler, as well as racial occupations such as Dwarven miner, Elven forester, and Halfling vagrant. By the way, if you get a racial occupation, your class will be a racial one, assuming you survive your first foray into adventure as a peasant hero.
The authors create no illusions about the toughness of game play – 0-Level characters are going to die, in droves, so make up several from the start and bring them along on their first adventure! Some monster attacks and most spells require saving throws, using the Fortitude, Reflex, Will standard, and failed saves often result in massive damage or instant death!
Those characters that do survive to amass experience to make 1st Level are allowed to choose a character class (unless your surviving character is a Dwarf, Elf, or Halfling – then you become that class), and finally start adventuring with a more powerful abilities than swinging a staff or knife at some horrible monster. The random character generation and Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest seem to be designed to create not only a memorable play experience, but to create a background and personality for the character forged in perilous adventure.
The character classes are an interesting mix, containing both iconic fantasy RPG traits, but having new mechanics added in to make them quite unique from their earlier incarnations. And it’s also important to point out that the classes and game mechanics are designed to represent a roleplaying style evocative of the novels in Appendix N, which include Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but also Lovecraft’s horror works, Lieber’s swashbuckling Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, and the apocalyptic story of Moorcock’s Elric saga. There are some definite dark elements to this fantasy roleplaying game, which comes out through a variety of game mechanics.
So while a Cleric can heal, cast spells, turn, and invoke their deity, they also have to be careful not to overuse their deity’s power to cast spells, or risk Disapproval (with an appropriate table of divine punishments for angering a fickle god). Healing damage is nicely handled as an at-will ability, but subject to Disapproval rolls if overused. Also the Cleric’s alignment affects how well he can heal other members of the party (diametric opposition gets less healing), and who the Cleric can turn. For example, a Lawful Cleric turns undead and demons, while a Chaotic Cleric can turn paladins and angels.
The Thief, Warrior, Dwarf, and Halfling classes are all melee based and gain certain bonus dice to excel at certain abilities. For instance, the Thief has Luck Dice to add in to attacks, damage and skill checks, as well and a plethora of classic rogue abilities, including old classics like Find and Disable Traps and Read Languages – including casting spells from scrolls – and backstab, of course, which causes an instant critical hit. Warriors and Dwarf classes have Deed Dice, ranging from d3 at low level to 1d10+4 at the high end, which are rolled as a bonus to both hit and damage in combat, and can allow them to perform “Mighty Deeds” such as disarming, tripping, pushbacks, and even rallying the adventuring team. Halflings gain Stealth Dice, and can dual-wield exceptionally well, giving them increased damage despite their small size.
Wizards (and the Elf class) have some of the most in-depth and involved rules because of spell casting, and DCC RPG’s spell system is, and yet is NOT, your classic D&D spell system. Unlike the other classes, these do not have special “add-on” dice, but instead have spells and an amazingly detailed system of spell casting (see below) and gaining spells from supernatural entities. Spells are cast at-will here, sort of, because they can be forgotten due to poor results when making a casting check.
I should mention that all classes have critical dice which scale up for added damage when a natural 20 is rolled, and there are Critical Hit tables for various classes (and in the case of Warriors, both for low and high level). It would also appear that DCC RPG has solved the “Fighter Linear-Wizard Quadratic” equation by giving melee classes the ability to do substantial damage, and for the Thief and Warrior, a range of nasty Critical Hits from the table that can often result in instant death.
One last note, the Luck ability score can actually be “burned” for bonuses to hit, to saving throws, and other dice checks. And the Halfling and Thief classes even have mechanics to restore the Luck stat at an accelerated rate, allowing them to use it frequently while adventuring to represent acts of daring and outrageous good fortune.
The spell casting system in DCC RPG, like the character classes, an intriguing mix of “old school” and unique game mechanics. Many spells in the tome are recognizable from various editions of D&D like the Wizard’s Magic Missile and Scorching Ray and the Cleric’s Protection from Evil and Spiritual Weapon. Other similar spells can be found with variant names like Word of Command (Command) and Spider Web (Web), and there is a solid collection of iconic spells to choose from.
What makes the system unique is that spell casting is not a sure thing, and in fact, can cause unstable and even dangerous results. As previously mentioned, all casting classes must roll a spell check to cast their spells. Each spell has its own table of results, ramping up in effectiveness from a basic level of effect or damage on up to something that might be misconstrued as a natural disaster. A Scorching Ray can cause a few points of damage with a low check, but a very high check (over 30) might involve the caster bringing forth magma and hurling at his foes, striking for deadly amounts of damage!
It also makes the rules for spells and spell casting take up a massive part of the DCC RPG book – well over 200 pages are devoted to spells and spell casting rules and tables!
But failing a spell check has dire results. On the mild side, a spell might not work, or fail and then be stripped from memory until rememorized. On the more sever side, failing a spell check with a natural 1 can have some very dire results for the caster. For Clerics, this means courting divine Disapproval, ranging from having to pray for 10 minutes for atonement to having their healing abilities stripped away for 24 hours. For Wizards (and the Elf class), this means Corruption, which is literally magic causing physical harm to the caster’s body and soul. This can be a minor disfigurement such as small lesions of the skin, or full blown decay for more powerful spell failure.
While Clerics have to deal with a sometimes capricious deity for spells, arcane casters must consult with powerful supernatural entities, demonic forces, and elder gods for their spells. These are given out randomly each level or by questing for them, or if they dare, by direct consultation with their supernatural patron.
And each spell manifests differently for each Wizard (or Elf), with odd side effects for casting a particular spell. The authors provide the Mercurial Magic Table to determine what the side effect is, and each and every spell a Wizard learns comes with its own unique casting properties. For instance, one Wizard’s Magic Missile spell might cause his flesh to become invisible for a few rounds, leaving him appearing like a skeleton! Another Wizard might have learned the same spell, but everytime she casts a Magic Missile, animals within sight of her become terrified and flee! This is just one of the ways spell casting is a strange and unusual event in DCC RPG.
Monsters, Treasure, and Magic Items
Monsters in the game comprise many of the classic types of undead, giants, dragons, and other mythological creatures common to heroic fantasy. Other creatures like demons and Lovecraftian monsters also have a place in this game, which can bring a certain darker horror fantasy element if the Judge wants to include them. The monster stat blocks are simple and easy to read, and any gamer familiar with 3.5 or earlier will be able to read them without any trouble.
There is a general Critical Hits chart for most monsters, and certain ones get a special chart of their own. Not surprisingly, demons, dragons, giants, and undead have special charts here, and their critical hits are both scary and appropriate to the particular type of monster.
Treasure is generally plentiful, but magic items seem to be meant to be rare finds. The authors provide a chart for distribution of magic items into the party by their level, and offer some tables for creating magic swords and spell scrolls. There are a few guidelines for characters to make their own items, and a spell is available to make potions. But for the other magic items, only guidelines for their creation are offered here, meaning that for rings and wondrous objects are generally up to the Judge to create, based upon whatever sort of campaign they are running. I would have liked to see a bit more here, but the guidelines are ample to give a Judge the right idea that magic items are special, rare, and exciting to find.
The DCC RPG tome ends with a series of appendices with tables for curses, starting languages, and poisons, as well as a random chart for names and titles. There are two short adventures offered in the book as well. The first is a 0-Level adventure to get the characters started on their career in adventuring, and a 5th Level adventure for mid-level play.
There are only 10 levels of play in the game, but with the danger and attrition rate of the character funnel, it is likely that heroes will have their work cut out for them to reach maximum level!
Overall Score: 4.6 out of 5.0
Having played through the “old school” era of D&D, as well as numerous other fantasy RPG systems over the years, I can definitely say that Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG pushes all the right buttons for recreating that nostalgic feel of heroic fantasy games from the 70s and 80s. And while I am definitely a 4E fan at heart, I must admit I want to run a mini-campaign or two of DCC RPG for my gaming groups, just for the sheer fun of early edition swords and sorcery roleplaying. What I really appreciate is that the authors created the old edition experience, but with some surprising and interesting mechanics that make every character feel special as part of an adventuring group. And some of the new mechanics really add a horror element to the heroic fantasy which you find quite prevalent in novels of the genre since Howard’s Conan first started hacking up demons and undead wizards decades ago.
And I can respect the unapologetic mindset to the game. It’s “old school”, like it or leave it, but they made it fun enough that I think a lot of D&D gamers would like it, regardless of edition. It certainly isn’t trying to market to all D&D and fantasy gamers of every edition, but then again, DCC RPG seems to know what it is and makes no buts about it.
The authors really brought together a complete package in one book – a player’s guide, a spell compendium, a monster manual, and a GM guide, plus a couple modules thrown in for free! So whether you buy the hardbound or PDF, you are ready to head off on a grand quest to slay horrible monsters, discover strange new places, and grab all the gold you can carry!
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Author’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product in Hardbound and PDF format from which the review was written.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Presentation: 4.25
- - Design: 4.5 (Awesome design and fun to read; good layout and progression of content)
- - Illustrations: 4.0 (Most were excellent representations of old school art but there were a few not as impressive pieces)
- Content: 4.5
- - Crunch: 4.5 (Highly crunchy; great blend of old school and indie mechanics)
- - Fluff: 4.5 (Lots of fluff, particularly for spell casting; strong encouragement to roleplay)
- Value: 5.0 (It’s a fully complete game for just 40 bucks – and much less for the PDF! Totally a steal!)
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