Running DCC at my Friendly Local Book and Game Store

Thursday night games at Better World Books in Goshen are growing in popularity. Starting at 4pm and going until 10pm, there are many games being played:

  • Board games
  • Dice masters
  • Magic drafts
  • Role-playing games

Last year, I ran the Dungeon Crawl Classic adventure Portal Under the Stars for a group of 4 players. On Thursday, March 2nd, I’m planning to run a different 0-level character funnel at Better World Books (see the Facebook event).

My eventual goal is to start up an every other week game going; Though perhaps not on Thursdays. Most Thursdays I have dinner with my daughters (and that takes precedence). Also, there are already three other tables of RPGs on Thursday nights:

  • A closed group 5th edition D&D game (5 or so players)
  • Pathfinder league play
  • A 5th edition D&D game (9 or so players)

Regardless, I’m looking forward to the antics of 0-level characters, hopelessly outclassed, struggling and eking out their survival.

Campaign, Rulings, Descriptions, and Questing

Favor Campaign over Characters

In most games, characters start fragile. A dead character should not end the campaign. Players are busy. An absent player should not scuttle the session.

Ensure that the game can handle drop-outs. Also, ensure it can handle drop-ins. Someone has intermittent availability. Work so the game would be fun for them as well as the regular players.

Let’s call this Martin’s Law. George R. R. Martin “Song of Fire and Ice” is a testimony to ensemble stories.

Favor Rulings over Rules

I don’t want to remember a wide variety of rules. I want a light framework to help me adjudicate in a consistent manner. I want to avoid time spent looking up rules, but instead want to keep moving in a consistent manner. I want the players to get back to the adventure/story.

I also want to make sure players have tools that they can use to counter the sting of some of my rulings; Either giving them a bonus, re-roll, advantage, or way of buying it off:

  • Fate Core has Fate points
  • Burning Wheel and Torchbearer have Artha
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics has Luck
  • D&D has Inspiration.
  • Eberron has Hero Points

Favor Description over Prescription

This is an extension of Rulings over Rules, but merits further discussion.

When presented with a problem, are do players limit their response to they have on their character sheet? Or do they start narrating how they respond and look to you for adjudication? Are the players engaging with the adventure or their character sheet?

For clever or amusing ideas, don’t require a role. They described how they were looking for traps and how they would disarm it. Give it to them. Broadcast that you will be rewarding player skill. This is a core tenant of avoiding the grind in Torchbearer, and what the OSR builds on.

Also, throw them some Inspiration, Luck points, Hero points, or Fate tokens. Given them currency to further engage in the story.

In a DCC funnel I ran, one of the characters had a pound of clay and fashioned a terra cotta helmet in hopes of blending in with a bunch of terra cotta warrior automatons. Instead of requiring a Personality roll, I said it worked. If I had to do it over again, I’d also have awarded +1 Luck to the character.

Mighty Deed Die vs. Feat Trees

The Warrior in Dungeon Crawl Classics has a Mighty Deed Die. The Might Deed Die replaces your static bonus to hit. At 1st level, you get a 1d3 Mighty Deed Die. (2nd level it becomes d4, 3rd a d5, etc).

When you attack, you declare your Mighty Deed – trip the monster, blind it, dive between it’s legs slash its underside etc. You then roll your attack add your Mighty Deed roll and your strength (or dexterity) bonus. If you hit the armor class and get a 3 or higher on your Mighty Deed die, your deed happens. The rules suggest the Referee to scale the degree of success based on the Mighty Deed result.

The Mighty Deed Die subsumes 3E and Pathfinder combat maneuvers: trip, disarm, sunder, improved grapple, etc. It guides play from the character sheet back to the table and story.

Favor Questing over Railroading

Put decisions on where to go adventuring into the players’ hands. Let them know if they want it, they can quest for it. Lost a limb? Give them clues about the promises of the Regenerating Muds of Lazul. Ask the players what their characters want. Let them pursue those desires by engaging in the world. But make sure the world is not remaining static.

Set larger events in motion. Create rumor tables. Think off screen. In other words, favor a sandbox world over adventure paths. The campaign is more than the actions of the characters.

Postscript

I recommend three resources:

The Rise (and Fall) of Session 0

I’ve seen an uptick in Session 0 rules for RPGs. And their usage.

The general idea is that before you play your first session, you have a collaborative session to prepare for the game.

You do a little world building (as per Diaspora, Dresden Files, or Fate Core). You might leverage Microscope to build the campaign setting.

Then move into the involved process of character creation: Pick your traits, feats, backgrounds, skills, etc. What shiny bobbins do you want this character to have.

One notable difference between Session 0 and Session 1 is that they are different activities. Where Session 1 is playing a character (or characters), Session 0 is preparing to play the character(s) by playing at world building. It’s analogue to making a Magic deck vs. playing Magic against an opponent. Both can be enjoyable, but they are two different activities.

Session 0 may also be a natural consequence of an involved character creation; Or rules baked into the game system.

While the goal may be admirable – to build consensus and a shared understanding of the game – there is peril.

Where Session 0 Falls Flat

The peril is that Session 0 creates a social contract and understanding that emerged through a different mechanism than the other future sessions.

Session 0 is not about playing to find out what happens…its about building what has happened beforehand. Your character is not taking risks nor in danger – unless you are playing original Traveller in which you could die during character creation.

Session 0 builds the initial conditions that the GM should bring to the table for Session 1. Its now on the GM to live up to those speculative constraints. Its also possible that the player’s initial constraints may not reflect what they discover they want to play in the future sessions.

In other words, in the advice of seasoned programmers: Avoid premature optimization. Get something running as soon as you can.

Making Session 1 the First Session

When the group gets together for the first time, the goal should be to start the charactersen media res as soon as possible.

This assumes:

  • Players know what they are playing that day
  • There is immediate action
  • Characters are quick to bring to the table

Players Know What They Are Playing That Day

Set expectations; What do they need to bring. What will you be doing. What are you trying to get done in the first session.

I ran a DCC 0-level character funnel and did a poor job setting expectations with one of the players. She later expressed frustration at the game.

I should have said:

We will be playing a Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel. Each of you will have 4 fragile characters to start. The goal is to make it through the dungeon with at least one of them alive. The survivor(s) will be your character(s) in further adventures. It won’t be easy, and you should think of your characters as pawns. Don’t risk them all at once.

There Is Immediate Action

Grab an introductory dungeon and have the characters start there; Either at the threshold or scouting out the approach. If there are random rumors for the adventure, give them a couple.

Do not worry about how they met; They are there and rescuing the puppy, seeking treasure, or ridding the area of monsters. Worry instead of playing to find out what happens.

Suggested Adventures

Characters Are Quick To Bring To The Table

If character creation and equipping is fast (e.g. 15 minutes or less), let them make characters. Keep it time bound. If you have a straggler – cough Matt cough – have them catch up in the dungeon (or find them as a prisoner).

If character creation is longer than 15 minutes, give the players pre-made characters to choose from; If you have time give each player 2 characters and let them pick one.

The goal is to start playing to find out what happens.

Postscript

If character mortality is high (e.g. B/X D&D, Dungeon Crawl Classics, etc.), make sure there are opportunities for replacement characters.

Encourage or give them a some hirelings. In the dungeon add some bound prisoners that can replenish the ranks. Don’t worry about verisimilitude; worry about engaged players.

If character creation is slow, make sure you have some spare characters prepared.

Randomness, I Forgot that I Needed You

I have fond memories of my 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons gaming days. Through random encounters, rolling on treasure tables, swingy spell results, and shared adventures I formed friendships that continue to this day.

From high school through college, we played D&D. Then moved for a brief time to Rolemaster, and it’s notorious charts (and critical tables).

From the Stone Giant Smoothy:

In exploring the caverns, the group had turned the corner and at the end of the corridor was a room packed with Stone Giants. We were out of our league. But we attempted a last ditch defense. My priest decide the best option was to drop a blade barrier in the giant filled room. The wizard thought it would be best to run, and opted to create a wall of force that would buy us all enough time to flee. The initiative fell, and the blade barrier went off, then the wall of force. The dimensions of the blade barrier fit the room, and all we could do is stare at the invisible barrier as the frost giants met their doom.

To Ace and Deuce in a short-lived Rolemaster campaign:

Deuce was an accomplished bowman and rogue; Built to be a death dealing archer. Yet, when arrows flew, his first critical hit – D critical – were superficial and his second hit was the killing blow. To aggravate the situation, the other player adopted the moniker Ace after three occasions of one-shot kills. (Thank you Matt for the corrections)

Through a random encounter with a White Dragon:

I rolled a random encounter: A White Dragon attacked the character’s on the permafrost fields; Lucky initiative and some potent spells dispatched the dragon. From there, the party druid cast Find the Path to locate the dragon’s hoard. And a grand session ensued where the party fought tooth and nail with a drow (again random) raiding party who also wanted to loot the dragon hoard.

And:

A Diversion

For the last 5 or so years, I’ve been chasing game systems looking for the right fit (Thank you 4th Edition for the bitter taste you left in my mouth). For a while my system of choice was Dungeon World.

In Dungeon World, I found a system that I could run with little prep and ample room for rulings. But as I’ve reflected, I noticed these games had a subtle yet profound frustration – the initial character bonds.

We would go around the table, establishing bonds and dive into the details of those bonds. From the interwoven bonds, I would improvise our first session. It is a great trick for convention games and short scenarios.

The interwoven bonds create an obvious starting situation. We’d play and during those sessions the situation would begin to resolve. Moves would snowball, but I found that nothing new and unexpected would enter the ecosystem of the starting situation; We would build on what the GM and players came up with.

What was missing was “Things that nobody knew would happen“; the random initiative, critical tables, and random encounters. Those subsystems that inject the unexpected.

I missed the moment when all players at the table would assess and respond to the unexpected. When imaginations fired and creativity responded to the constraints of the new situation.

The Challenge

Here’s a challenge to everyone, pick one:

  • Ask another player who has been playing for awhile to describe their most memorable experience with a Deck of Many Things.
  • Drop a Deck of Many Things in your next session, and roll with the punches.

In my experience, the table comes alive with the Deck of Many Things: The promise of riches and the gamble. A scene with a Deck of Many Things is a concentrated moment of adventure.

That first player who draws a few cards, and all is well. Thus goading others on. Then the desperation as party members begin drawing from the Deck of Many Things not for riches, but to try to undo the drawing of the Void or Donjon by a party member. And there are the treasure maps, fighting death, gaining a keep, and enmity with an outer planar creature.

In 2nd Edition, I had a Dwarf that once drew 5 or 6 cards. He drew the Euryale (-3 penalty to all saving throws vs. petrification). Several sessions later, the group had a random encounter with a Gorgon’s petrifying breath; The -3 penalty made the difference in his failed roll.

I wasn’t there for another use, but I believe a beloved and long running henchman began his career when a player drew the Knight (gain the service of a 4th level fighter).

Postscript

These days I’m looking to Dungeon Crawl Classics as my system of choice. It is a paradox…a rules light system in a massive tome. The majority of the pages are for random things (spell results, dragon powers, critical hits, fumbles, starting occupations, deity disapproval, etc.).

Characters don’t begin with interwoven backstories, they are instead dropped at the start of an adventure with 3 random bits of equipment and some coins. But more on that for another time.