I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the OSR. I have copies of most of the major rules sets–Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, etc. But they seem to be multiplying at a wet-Gremlin rate, and overall, I find them too derivative of the rules on which they are based. While they may occasionally streamline a sub-system or add a smart innovation (for example, the entire economy system of Adventurer Conquerer King System), most of their books are just a restating of the rules I grew up playing. So when I first heard about Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, I was skeptical. I lurked on their message boards for a while, and what I heard intrigued me enough that I pre-ordered the rule book.
When the book arrived, I was impressed first by the size of the book. I remember that when I got my copy of Burning Empires, I thought I had seen the most brick-like rule book I would ever see. I was wrong. The DCCRPG book is huge. It’s printed on thick, white paper, and the page count is over 400. It’s heavily illustrated throughout in black and white art that is highly evocative of the kind of the game it wants to be.
What the game wants to be is definitely not another rehashing of D&D. While there’s a lot in the book that shares some genes with D&D (the classes are warrior, cleric, thief, wizard, elf, dwarf, and halfling–for example), D&D is more of an uncle than a parent to the game. The parents of DCCRPG are found in Appendix N.
The game encourages the kind of play that replicates many of the stories in Appendix N. Warriors, for example, especially as they gain levels, have the ability to perform Mighty Deeds of Arms. These deeds can be used to replicate 3e feats–disarming, tripping, etc. But they can also be used to blind opponents, pin their weapons, push them off cliffs, keep them away from the wizard, etc. There are examples of what these deeds can do, but there is also a very narrativist feel to them. If the player can think of a way to use the deed, and the GM agrees, then the deed can happen.
Wizards are perhaps even more tightly linked to Appendix N. Every spell in the game has its own casting chart, with different spell effects for each level, including some really horrific things that can happen if the casting roll is botched. For example, if you cast burning hands within a typical casting range (say 12-18 on a d20, plus Int modifier and caster level), the spell will function much like you expect, a small arc of enemies will take a little bit of damage. But if your casting check is a 30, then there will be a small arc of enemies who are NOT consumed in a burning flame. Thus, magic is unpredictable, destructive, and fun.
Cleric casting works on a similar principle, but instead of growing tentacles with failed checks, you gain Disapproval with your deity. Accumulate enough disapproval, and one of your spell check is likely to annoy your deity to the point where he reminds your cleric who is in charge.
The other rule worth mentioning is Luck. Every character has a luck attribute that can be burned to give bonuses to die rolls. Need one more point to avoid falling into the pit of despair? Burn a point of luck. Unfortunately, for every character except thieves and halflings, that luck probably isn’t coming back (unless you do something that gets the notice of the gods and they reward you). Thieves and halflings, however, get even more bang for their luck. For each luck they spend, thieves get a d3 added to their roll and halflings get 2 points–and they recover their level in luck each night.
Since getting the game, the Rotgut Manglers have played two sessions, running the 0-level adventure included with the book and the module that came with the pre-order. The first adventure, The Portal under the Stars, is a funnel adventure. DCCRPG has a unique method of character creation. Every player creates a handful of characters, and the whole mini-army of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers charges into a dungeon. Whoever comes out the other end of the “funnel” becomes 1st level and forms the core of the adventuring party. In our case, each player rolled up 6 characters. So, 18 players went in, and 8 came out the other end. I don’t want to spoil the adventure, but one of the highlights for our group included PC 1 shoving PC 2 into a room with a flame jet trap, and after the poor chap was incinerated, PC1 strode boldly into the room, confident the trap was spent, only to be incinerated as well. The other highlight was the final encounter where part of the group tried to hold the door against a horde of living statues, while other party members tried to tunnel in to the room on the other side of the door through the ceiling.
After the first adventure, the party consisted of two halflings, an elf, two warriors, one thief (with a whopping 2 total hit points), and two clerics–one of Cthulhu and one of Ahriman, god of death and disease. The second adventure, Doom of the Savage Kings, has more plot than the first, and the party found themselves embroiled in a deadly mystery involving a ghostly hound and many colorful townspeople. Only one character died in this session, but the most memorable part was the cleric of Cthulhu racking up a number of disapproval points and eventually drawing the ire of his god–being forced to learn humility by acquiescing to every request for 24 hours. This set up the great moment where the group was faced with belly-crawling through a dark, ghoul-infested crawlspace, and one of the halflings turned to the cleric and said, “Hey! Do you want to go first?”
So, my overall impressions of the game… It’s a lot of fun. Our group isn’t taking our campaign too seriously. We’re playing it as an episodic game where we aren’t worrying too much about how the adventures tie together, and there’s not an overarching plot to fulfill. The characters are a little screwy–especially the cleric of Ahriman who is really quite sensitive about his feelings, but yet truly wants to be evil. We’re reveling in the gonzo aspects of the game. Could you run the game more seriously? Definitely, but there a good bit of randomness to the game, and when the Manglers start having to explain random effects, things are likely to get a bit silly.
When I first started reading about the game, I thought that it was so random as to take away all choice from the players. What I’ve learned as I’ve played is that it actually encourages player control. From the funnel, where the players get a lot of say in which of their characters face danger (a hint, keep the dudes with the good stats away from the danger) and thus which characters will make up the party, to mighty deeds, where the player can do exactly what she envisions her warrior doing, to spell casting, which doesn’t limit wizards/clerics to a certain number of spells per day, but instead lets the player decide when the risk of casting one more spell is just too great, the game’s mechanics encourage player autonomy, within a framework of randomness. And that makes for a really fun game.