A Slow Path to Dungeon Crawl Classics

While out visiting my brother and sister-in-law, I bought Dungeon Crawl Classics in Lawrence, Kansas in October 2012. The art was captivating (and I should’ve bought the Easley cover). But the rules were not yet for me; I was deep into Dungeon World and felt the DCC book to be rather intimidating.

The game lingered on my shelf for years. I’d pull it out to look at the art, but it never took hold. Then in August of 2015, something changed.

Fate-based games were tiresome and predictable (see Fate Point Economy: All the Glories of Accounting and Fiduciary Obligations). Dungeon World’s shimmer and shine as a new GMing approach had worn thin (It took 18 more months to outline in a blog post a primary issue I have with Dungeon World.)

I was looking at running a new campaign, and DCC made the short list (but was still a dark horse, I think because of the funky dice). But 5th Edition hit and I wanted to give that a spin. I even set up rules for a 5th Edition Character funnel (and should revise those rules based on my observations.)

That campaign fizzled due to scheduling conflicts amongst the players; Also, Out of the Abyss is a hot mess and requires a lot of organizational effort.

A few months passed, and I started playing in a 5E game at Better World Books in Goshen. The group was rather large, combats moved at a glacial pace, and the campaign style was not for me. But it didn’t matter who showed up, the DM ran regardless.

During this time, I was listening to the Save or Die podcast, and I couldn’t help but not GM Jim’s exuberant praise of DCC.

I stopped going to those 5E sessions, as a perfect scheduling storm occurred. I had a chance to start a Burning Wheel campaign based on an idea I had been noodling on for years. We set the group, cleared schedules, and then life shifted and the campaign stopped.

During that short-lived campaign, I saw the Road Crew kits that Goodman Games provided. I decided to run a game to get some swag. On one of the Thursdays when the D&D group wasn’t playing, scheduled and ran a DCC Funnel. At this point, I had never played nor judged DCC.

I left that session energized and excited. My 5th Edition funnel was a pale comparison to the DCC funnel experience. The session felt part Looney Toons and part B-Horror film (abbreviated session write-up for Portal Under the Stars).

As winter passed, I was delving further into OSR options, working a modified Whitehack and writing my own FLGS Quickstart Rules. By this time, I had listened to all of the Save or Die episodes, and moved on to Spellburn. I love Jim Wampler’s podcast energy and enthusiasm.

And that’s when DCC clicked. I re-opened the books, and saw the game for what it was – an intriguing and energizing paradox.

A rules light system in a book that could maim a person. A game that eschews balance in favor of judgement calls and wild randomness. Where death is memorable and an inevitable stepping stone in the campaign story arc. And how a simple mechanic, the Might Deed, can obviate all of the feat chains of other game systems. Where players can get anything they want if they are willing to quest for it!

Now, I am running a regular DCC drop in campaign. I write up session reports, session preparation, and other procedures for the game. I am enjoying it. If the revolving and returning players are any indicator, so are the other players.

It’s a bit chaotic digging through my binder full of characters, never quite knowing what the session will look like, but I enjoy those challenges and improvisations. I’m running from a mix of modules, my own procedures, and improvisation.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Agenda and Advice

Dungeon Crawl Classics is inspired by the literature that inspired the original Dungeons & Dragons. DCC is an homage to the play style of 1974. It’s a game of fantastical adventure, players skill, and collaborative world building.

The Character is Dead, Long Live the Campaign

You will lose characters. Yet without the risk of losing characters, their accomplishments are hollow. If you find yourself without a character, roll up some new ones, and I’ll introduce them straight away; We are all here to play the game, not listen to others playing the game.

We are at the table to play to find out what happens. We will explore the wending paths of story set in a world unlike ours.

As a Judge, I will strive for consistency in adjudicating the game. I am playing the game to challenge the players (and characters); I want to see them succeed, but I also will strive to challenge them.

Principles

Taking a page from Dungeon World, my agenda for judging a DCC game is to:

  • Portray a fantastic world
  • Fill the characters’ lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

Some Advice from a Novice DCC Judge

Low-level characters are fragile. Spend your resources on recruiting some hirelings. There’s strength in numbers. These hirelings will serve both as a buffer to the “main characters” and as a pool of potential replacements.

Magic is unpredictable. This is the greatest deviation from original D&D. Unlike D&D, you need to roll to cast your spell. If you have a poor roll, you’ll lose the spell without effect. The higher your roll, the greater the degree of success and potency of your spell.

Engage the world by asking questions. Test your assumptions about the situation; Ask questions and check with the Judge if this assumption holds true. Ask questions about what your characters are experiencing. When you do engage with the world, state your intentions and any precautions.

Additional Advice from other Sources

Some of the player’s advice from Matt Finch’s Old School Primer (a free PDF)

  1. View the entire area you’ve mapped out as the battleground; don’t plan on taking on monsters in a single room. They may try to outflank you by running down corridors. Establish rendezvous points where the party can fall back to a secure defensive position.
  2. Scout ahead, and try to avoid wandering monsters which don’t carry much treasure. You’re in the dungeon to find the treasure-rich lairs. Trying to kill every monster you meet will weaken the party before you find the rich monsters.
  3. Don’t assume you can defeat any monster you encounter.
  4. Keep some sort of map, even if it’s just a flow chart. If you get lost, you can end up in real trouble – especially in a dungeon where wandering monster rolls are made frequently.
  5. Ask lots of questions about what you see. Look up. Ask about unusual stonework. Test floors before stepping.
  6. Protect the magic-user. He’s your nuke.
  7. Hire some cannon fodder. Don’t let the cannon fodder start to view you as a weak source of treasure.
  8. Spears can usually reach past your first rank of fighters, so a phalanx of hirelings works well.
  9. Check in with the grizzled one-armed guy in the tavern before each foray; he may have suddenly remembered more details about the area.

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.

Have Fun Storming the Castle

Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar:

The party knows they want to get into the keep. They see guards. There are fortifications. They’ve done some reconnaissance. And now they plan and argue over their approach. And you as the GM either sit back and listen. Or, with little warning, you send guards out to capture the party.

Inspired by Dungeon World moves, I made a “move” for players to use for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. It’s intention is to throw your characters into action. Listen as they plot and scheme, asking questions. As they begin to turn towards each other and argue, shift to the following:

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together

When you spend some time observing a guarded and fortified area and you articulate a plan based on observation and intuition and set the plan in motion, choose someone on the party to make a Luck roll.

  • On a success, the party gets a common Luck pool to use on your assault. There are a number of Luck points in the pool as the result of the die. Anyone that took part in the planning may spend these Luck points; They are only good for the next 5 minutes of real time (Referee…start the clock).
  • On a failure, go through with your plan, but the Judge will surely throw a complication your way.

World of Steve – Session 2

This is a post that I dug up from the drafts. Its incomplete, but has a bit of value.

In September of 2013, I ran a Dungeon World session and today we picked up from that session – its not often that you run a singular session then 6 months later run the follow-up. Tragically, I forgot that I had written up elaborate notes for that session, so there was a bit of discontinuity.

Starting from Memory or What Was Different

Cyne was able to track the shape changer. Though this turned out to be false.

Collectively, we had forgotten the contact, so we renamed to Black Jack.

Diving Right In

Confrontation in the Courtyard

Kind Steve was captured and his player, Jaron, quickly created Mutton Steve, a barbarian priest of the church of Steve.

Using the secret passageway into the garage, they found a warehouse room with several hundred crates. They were marked with a sigil that Skinny Jake remembered seeing 6 months ago on a ship back in Bluefall. Inside each of the open 10 or so opened crates was a single large obsidian shape, each different and perhaps part of a large puzzle.

In the quartermaster’s office, a high stakes skirmish erupted as Skinny Jake, Cyne, Mutton Steve, and Jasper attempted to secure the room from 4 littlings without alerting the hoard of littlings outside the door.

A particularly tense moment was when Cyne over extended his attack, and two littlings rushed up his spear. One dove for the door knob while the other jumped in Cyne’s pack. With the help of the table, Cyne needed to defy danger to both stop a littling from opening the door while  also stopping a littling that jumped in his pack from chewing off his ear. He succeeded keeping his ear and the door from opening.

What We Learned

Clergy of the Church of Steve can change their name, under two circumstances: promotion or atonement. The name change is performed by four other priests.

The horned faced creature in Kind Steve’s fevered dreams is named Ixit.

Hirelings and Help

  • Mutton Steve – A barbarian priest of Steve, adorned in ram skins and a horned helmet, wielding a ferocious two-handed sword. Cost: Debauchery;Skills: Priest 1, Protector 1, Warrior 3, Loyalty 0.
  • Veldrin – An elf ranger, and travelling companion of the heroes (former PC). Cost: Uncovered Knowledge; Skills: Tracker 2, Warrior 1, Loyalty 2.
  • Lem – A tower guard for Ramsford. He’s the one that knew about the secret passage into Ramsford. Cost: Money; Skills: Warrior 2, Loyalty 1.
  • Jasper – A tower guard for Ramsford. He’s the one that Skinny Jake first woke up. Cost: Good Accomplished; Skills: Warrior 2, Loyalty 2.

Musing about Upcoming Campaign (and System)

Its looking like I will be facilitating a face to face regular RPG game. And now I’m looking at the systems that I’m planning to suggest to the group:

Of particular note, Dungeon World is not on the offering. One of my players has requested a bit more “crunch” than Dungeon World. And as I pressed him for more information, it sounded as though he had worn through the playbooks. He has just started a D&D 5E game and enjoys the diverse characters within a given class.

Whitehack 2nd Edition is on the list because the rules are a streamlined revisitation of D&D 0E with some more modern sensibilities. I believe there is enough “crunch” to this game even though the rulebook is quite compact. At present this is one I want to see in play.

D&D 5E is on the list because at its heart, my game table has been a Dungeons & Dragons table. I’ve run 2E, 3E, and played 4E. And 5E is an amazing re-engineering of previous editions with attention to some modern developments (bonds and aspects).

Wrath of the Autarch, a dark horse but one with a lot of appeal. First its heavily inspired by Birthright, so that’s a huge plus for me.

Scarlet Heroes is on the list in part because I love the Red Tide campaign tooling. I would love to have a system that requires little in the way of translation for that tooling. Since I’ve been considering a Sandbox campaign, I would like to use Sine Nomine products – the gold standard of sandbox adventuring.

I decided to add DCC RPG to the mix based on a conversation about character funnels. DCC recommends that players start with a few 0th level characters, fragile and weak, then send them through a funnel and see who survives.

When I bring the games to the table I’ll ask the players what they are after:

  • Do you want a “story arc game” in which encounters are always feasible for the characters to overcome? This will result in a more “railroaded” story being told.
  • Would you rather have a “sand box game” in which characters choose where to go, and reconnaissance is greatly rewarded as encounters are not tailored for character level? This should result in more emergent stories.
  • What style of Fantasy are we looking for? I had talked a bit about Eberron’s pulp-noir feel, but I have a campaign map brewed up as well.
  • How do you feel about starting with a character funnel? Make 3 or 4 characters and lets play some disposable characters to see what “sticks”

I played in a D&D 2E Birthright in which the GM started everyone as 0-level characters and we played a few sessions. The GM took notes and when we hit level 1, he handed us a standard class with a few tweaks to show our character’s nuances. It was an interesting experience in which the players had to rely on player skill to overcome challenges.

One thing is clear, I will bring to bear numerous resources from the OSR that I’ve been accumulating. More on that later.

Circle of Hands Clash System Shout Out

CIrcle of Hands by Ron Edward

CIrcle of Hands by Ron Edward

I finished reading Circle of Hands by Ron Edwards. The combat/clash system is sticking in my brain.

A brief rundown:

  • Everyone states their intentions
  • Line everyone up in order of quickness (faster characters will go first)
  • Anyone can pay (in resolve/might) to jump to the head of the line…at any time
  • Actions are taken…and can pull other characters to the head of the line

It appears to be an engine that leverages chaos, imperfect information, and resource management to move combat from the poor analogue of the battle mat to a procedure for negotiating a charged moment of fiction.

It reminds me of Diaspora‘s space combat system; Diaspora’s space combat system uses a 1-D map to represent spaceship position and a procedure for resolution.

By reducing the number of physical dimensions representing the conflict, a more concise understanding of positioning, tempo, and advantage is exposed.

Circle of Hands does something similar, pushing the 2-D/3-D conflict to 1-D.

Circle of Hands conflict has a visual placeholder for players to reference. It draws attention to the most important aspect of a table-top RPG conflict: temporal positioning. How and when does each player participating in the conflict take their turn.

I suspect that Circle of Hands will solve one of the problems I have with Powered by the Apocalypse games (looking at you Dungeon World): namely when does someone get to do something?

The answer for Dungeon World is when the GM points the camera at a player. For Circle of Hands, the answer is in front of you, and it is your’s to change.