Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics: The Role Playing Game

I haven't played this game, only read the book. So my review is merely my impression of how this game reads and seems. Actual play might result in a very different game. Or it might not. But I can only review it based on how it reads
I put in this disclaimer because nothing seems more like a lightning rod for complaint than reviewing an RPG and saving you don't love it. If you disagree with my review, please feel free to comment below, or write your own review! The authors will surely appreciate it.

Dungeon Crawl Classics
by Joseph Goodman
480 pages (including full-page art and ads at the end)

Dungeon Crawl Classics, if you haven't heard of it yet, is a old-school style roleplaying game. It's not a retro-clone, it's a retro-style new RPG that shares a lot of traits with D&D and old-school clones. AD&D Plus Rolemaster, perhaps set in Dying Earth - That's my TL;DR, elevator pitch description of DCC.

Like AD&D, it's class and level, random backgrounds for your PC, vulnerable to sudden death from a variety of monsters. It also uses a wide variety of dice, including d7s, d16s, and d30s. Like Rolemaster, there is seemingly a chart for everything. If you flip open a random page in the book, you're likely to find a table to roll on. I'd say DCC has more charts than the version of Rolemaster I played in the 80s. Also like Rolemaster, gruesomely specific critical hit tables give a potentially splatter effect to combat. Spell casting is automatically inherently risky and can fail catastrophically.

And like Dying Earth, magic is inherently risky and can fail catastrophically. Magic items are rare and possibly dangerous. The gods and demons and whatnot resent you if they notice you at all. Everything is always at risk, and only cleverness and power can let you keep what you have or gain more.

So it's got that Dying Earth vibe set to mechanics that feel like what if you ran AD&D and used Arms Law/Claw Law/Spell Law as advertised - as supplements to the game. It does have a lot of D&D 3e feel to it, though - more streamlined mechanics around Saving Throws or attacks, more direct rules support for heroics.

The game uses an interesting mechanic called the dice chain - harder-than-normal attempts or disadvantaged attempts at rolls use a lower die (instead of d20 to hit, you might roll a d16, or a d24, depending on getting a malus or bonus). For example, fighters use a d20 to roll to hit, but if you wield two weapons you roll a pair of d16s - less likely to hit, but you get two chances at it. Higher level types get an extra die to roll, making the terrible failures that come with a low roll less likely and opening up more spectacular successes.

The game also opens with zero-level characters. Each player is advised to make several of them, and to allow luck and play to whittle them down to a single PC to continue playing from 1st level on. It's like N4 Treasure Hunt, only with more lethal rules and an expectation that many will die.

Spell casting, as mentioned earlier, is dangerous. As far as I can tell, every spell has its own full-page description and a table of possible results depending on how well or how badly you roll. The critical hits are much the same - very descriptive, amusing to consult, and no doubt fun in play.

The book is extremely attractive. It is filled with pictures, by old-school artists like Russ Nicholson, Roslof, and Erol Otus, as well as newer artists inspired by those guys, like Stephen Poag and Doug Kovacs. Art is everywhere, there are easy-to-read tables and large fonts, and art matches the text well. Some of it is used cleverly, but at the expense of some readability - the various guilds/groups in the world have their descriptions posted up along the edges of art scenes, angled as if part of the art. But that can make it hard to read, or at least it did for me.

There are lots of little things that bugged me - places where the book contradicts itself, or runs on too long making a point. Like where it comes out and says "Starting characters are peasants and serfs who have never held a gold piece in their hands." Very cool and evocative, but it's contradicted by possible starting occupations like "Noble" (comes with a gold ring) or "Merchant" (comes with some gold pieces.) "Most starting characters" might sound less cool, but when I read that I immediately flipped back to the random list, thinking, no, that's not what you said earlier. It happens a few other places, like the full-page section on treasure that asks "how does a sage charge 20, 50, or 100 gold pieces for a single consultation" as a rhetorical question skewering coin-based adventuring-based economies but then lists sages a few pages later that charge 10-30 gold pieces for a consultation. The book also spends almost an entire page on why big treasure hordes in cash don't make sense, but ends with a suggestion to just use any established treasure system, from another game system, that you prefer. That felt like a let-down - if treasure is different in DCC's world, give me a system for it. If it isn't, why explain how it is when porting another game's rules will match that system's treasure results? It's contradictions like that make me wonder which bit I should actually trust, or if there are other contradictions I didn't notice reading that will come up when I play.

Other little bits bothered me as well - how many times do Heroic Actions need explanation (first as some "examples" and later as more concrete rules for trying them)? How many times do conflicting curses cancelling each other out (both with Cugel's curse dodge from Dying Earth as the paraphrased example) need to get mentioned? And why does, for example, the Wizard get their level titles listed "Chaotic" and "Lawful" and "Neutral" while the Dwarf has them "Lawful" "Chaotic" and "Neutral" and the Cleric "Law" "Chaos" and "Neutral?" Nitpicky, perhaps, but I'm used to getting my work stringently edited and I find this kind of thing annoying. Or how many times do I need that author-to-reader "no really, play it this way, it's the old school way" kind of advice? I prefer to hear that once, and then have the nature of the rules and setting reinforce it, but it feels like it comes up very often on a read-through.

It's got a built-in setting, as well - specific gods and demons. Magic items are rare, unique, and unlucky for the user - any magic sword and most more-than-minor magic items give a luck penalty. Which sucks for would-be heroes, because the monsters are plentiful, many-varied, and often need magic weapons and some luck to defeat. NPCs are generally low-level. There is a thriving medieval economy, with limited cash. Information is rare and valuable, travel is slow and dangerous, and the world feels dark and somewhat bleak - not a bad place for adventures.

But there is a lot to like, here. The game clearly wants magic to be tempting, but cool and dangerous. It's that, in spades, and even allows for magic duels using a special system to allow for direct spell dueling. Learning new spells is more a matter of luck and effort than picking off a list, which is also cool. The monsters are, like I said, varied. Pretty much instead of choosing a given type for a monster, DCC chose all types. Do manticores have scorpion tails or shoot spikes? Some do one and some do the other! The magic sword rules make for some crazy-cool magic swords, but their inherent unluckiness and often . . . forceful personalities makes wielding one as risky as casting spells, it seems.

Overall: I'd be willing to give the game a shot, but I can't see myself running it. It's a big, big chunk of rules to digest if I really want to take advantage of its uniqueness. It gives the feel that it isn't optional detail but expected and basic rules to be used. Playing it would be okay, but again, big chunk of rules to digest. I expect I'd just let the GM tell me what happened when I declared actions and see what happened. Having a stripped down "this is all you need to play, the rest is just extra fun detail" booklet might help.

Overall, I'd suggest giving it a look, but $59.99 is steep unless you're sure this is what you want to play.


  1. Yeah, i had the same impression after running DCC for about 8 months. Lots of ideas and promises but the implemented rules fall very short? I don't like plating it, ultimately. We switched back to AD&D.

  2. I played it a few times. The magic system was neat, the funny dice were annoying and frankly arbitrary at times. You have a good grasp of how the game is in your review.


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