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.

Features of Burning Wheel That I Enjoy(ed?)

  1. Scripted conflict resolution
  2. Helping & FoRKs
  3. Circles
  4. Character burning
  5. Character advancement

Scripted Conflict

For scripted conflict resolution (Duel of Wits, Range & Cover, and Fight!) there are more streamlined options (i.e. AD&D 2E we would declare actions, roll initiative, and see how things fell apart).

The difference is BW locks in three actions and resolves them. So when something unexpected/unplanned happens, there’s more in game segments that pass before any course correction is possible. Hence my gaming group’s love of RoboRally.

Helping & FoRKs

The chances in Burning Wheel of success without assistance are slim. The game encourages you to look around the table and solicit help. It also encourages you to provide help (and thus advance). It is clear that helping someone on a test binds your fate to the test as well (this is a logical thing that I apply to any help provider regardless of system; But BW is clear that this is expected).

In practice, there was a lot more negotiation at the table; Akin to the problem of Fate where players spend excessive game time attempting to leverage every aspect on the table. (Unlike Fate, in BW success is not guaranteed due to the probability curve).

I have found D&D 5E’s Aid Another rule to solve this rather straightforward. And as such, am hesitant to want my RPG experience to include the Helping & FoRKs negotiation (unless I am again playing with my cooperative board game loving group).

Circles

I love articulated rules for finding specific or general people. Burning Wheel’s Circle system works quite well for this.

Character Burning

Character Burning is a personal activity. I look at it as akin to building a Magic the Gathering deck. The various character stocks (Elf, Dwarf, Human, and Orc) have a very different feel. And same “level” characters are so very different in their capabilities.

The resulting characters inform the GM what kind of game the players are hoping to see; Its more detailed than I have a Thief with Perform skill. (I have an Auger with Butchering and Astrology).

Character Advancement

Its all about incremental improvements. Eek out small advances that build over time. I enjoy looking ahead to character class features. In Burning Wheel, if I want to improve those features, I need to challenge them. In other games, advancement often doesn’t relate to skill usage. (D&D 5E, I can get better at Stealth even if my whole level was spent fighting).

The observation I’ve had about D&D 3E-5E is that many players at the table are focusing on what they might be getting at the next level. Interested in unlocking those features. And that happens, to some extent, regardless of what they are doing in game to get there.

In Burning Wheel, the players had some incentive to better guide the story. After all, if they want to advance a skill, they need to use it.

Further Observations

In each of the above cases, there are less baroque analogues that are quite adequate for most game play.

Scripted Combat: AD&D 2E combat that we used; Declare actions, roll initiative, resolve actions

Helping & FoRKs: D&D 5E Aid Another, Inspiration, Advantage

Circles: A Charisma check (though some guidelines or a table could help for any given game table)

Character Burning: D&D 5E Backgrounds, Whitehack’s Slots and Groups

Burning Wheel requires a tremendous amount of concentration compared to other RPGs that I’ve played. If the table is prepared for that concentration commitment, then it can shine. The game is tightly integrated with its constituent parts.

It is also a game that I have found resonates with people who enjoy the more involved board games (i.e. Advanced Civilization comes to mind). I also look to Burning Wheel and say “I’d never want to play just a session of it. This is a game that demands campaign play.”

So, when I survey the games that are in my personal library, Burning Wheel has become my white whale. Its not that I want to play Burning Wheel, but that Burning Wheel hints at the type of game I want to play.

A game where the players come with a powerful agenda for their characters. They have the tools to actualize that agenda. They dig deep to work together against long odds. There is a vast tapestry of NPCs that the characters have sought out; Some are friends, some enemies, and others waiting to turn. I want the game to have unpredictable moments, when a plan falls horribly apart and the characters must deal with a major set back.

But my reality is quite different. I struggle to get a regular game together (parenting, growing our personal business, and work are my priority). If my kids are with me, I’m not going to be running a game for my other friends. So my schedule is limited. This means concentration is an uncertainty, and thus Burning Wheel, while tempting, is a bad idea for me to run.

Dragonknights – Session #1

Tonight was a playtest run of Dragonknights, a game in the works by Travis Scott.

A dragon and doll having tea.

Coathios and Ilfwan having tea. Courtesy of Mark Daniels

The Player Characters

Coathios

  • Species: Lustrous Nightfang
  • Temperment: Obsessively Entranced
  • Hoard: Porcelain Dolls (“Ilfwan” an obsidian-headed doll)
  • Wingmate: Skollis is soooo pretty
  • Bond: With the right hammer any dream is possible

Domnus Oric (Smith)

  • High Concept: Bigger & Better
  • Trouble: I Must Touch Everything
  • Mentor: Many hands make light work
  • Role: Hey, its just money
  • Bond: With the right hammer any dream is possible

Skollis

  • Species: Brazen Bolter
  • Temperment: Opportunistic Hotshot
  • Hoard: Arms & Armor from beyond Indgard
  • Wingmate: Coathios takes care of the boring stuff
  • Bond: We make this look good

Domnus Grimaer (Magistrate)

  • High Concept: Glory defined by someone else’s vision
  • Trouble: Too many balls in the air
  • Mentor: The finer points of diplomacy diplomacy ends at a dragon’s snout.
  • Role: Puppet Master
  • Bond: We make this look good

The World

Abject Dangers > Human Perils > Blackguards & Skullduggery > True Rule

Everyone knows that Steward Oldfa is the true power in the domain. She whispers in the ears of the rules, pulls the strings of the local Trade Leagues, and even has a few Magistrates she can rely on to get things done or covered up. Steward Oldfa came to power through financial dominance over other stewards, in particular by placing tremendous pressure on Magistrate Ardolf the Angry.

Uncertain Futures > Opportunities & Endeavors > Costs & Bargains

Every traveler takes one of three major trade roads in your domain.

  • The Burning Pass is known for its scalding winds.
  • The Gentle Road is known for its bandits.
  • The Merchant’s Trail is known for its kudzu-like carnivorous grass.

Uncertain Futures > Opportunities > Costs & Bargains

The confluence of several major trade routes falls at the outskirts of your domain. The beloved Ogre’s Head Ale is in great supply, and the contraband Root Death (made from yolk of Venomous Whisper Drake eggs) is put up with by the good fold of the domain.

Uncertain Futures > Opportunities & Endeavors > Who Would Rule?

The dominant faction in the local Stewards Council has been ousted, and the people couldn’t be happier! Steward Parduelf has been given the new title of Speaker. He is speaks of progress but is an insidious demagogue. His first major change was to remove the regulations regarding Root Death usage.

Outrageous Fortunes > What Luck > Strange Blessings

What luck! Vast plains support a huge quantity of cattle. Goodman Wufric makes sure that Fort Hope gets its share, though he is cross with Fort Hope because they snubbed Magistrate Ardolf the Angry’s diplomatic envoy.

Established Cast

  • Steward Olfda – the power behind it all.
  • Magistrate Adrolf the Angry – ousted from power.
  • Steward Pardeulf – an insidious demagogue, and puppet of Steward Olfda.
  • Smith Wufric – provides cattle for Fort Hope.
  • Scholar Parewan – Bandit leader, gave Domnus Oric the gift of a letter of introduction to the Melted Library. Domnus Oric reverse engineered a safe for him. Domnus Grimaer orchestrated the safe of Magistrate Ardolf falling into the hands of Parewan. Recently branded a bandit.
  • Domna Bowid, Steward – almond skin, scar from ear to collar, Steward of Fort Hope; Low Eminence, High Stewardship
  • Fraebog (Frilled Mountain King) – Domna Bowid’s bonded dragon, High Eminence
  • Domnus Angwyn, Warrior – A dragon bonded warrior of Fort Hope.
  • Smith Pulfric – Helped Oric craft the masonry shelves for Coathios’s lair
  • The Land of Vos – Blades are forged in the blood of the fallen, in a way creating a family tree. This blade begat this blade.

Campaign Aspects

  • The Glorious Order of the Knights Dragonbonded
  • Unheard Voices
  • Political Unrest

Scenes

Taking a cue from Travis’s GenCon game, I gave each bonded pair a moment in each of the dragon’s lairs. We are also pressed for time, having about 2 1/2 hours to play.

Coathios has a small table set for tea. He is enjoying tea with Ilfwan his prized porcelain doll. Oric enters through the fine crafted door. The lair is shelves of lesser dolls each facing the large soft bed on which Coathios rests.

Skollis has his lair arranged such that morning sun shines in. The polished arms and armor reflects and magnifies the morning sun.

Bowid has asked Oric and Grimaer to prepare their dragons for flight. It turns out that Bandit Parewan has stolen a book that will prove Magistrate Ardolf‘s treason. But they must act in haste for Magistrate Ardolf will be leaving the lands in 6 days time. And this capture should happen within Fort Hope’s domain!

Reconaissance

They take flight to gather information from the city of Iyravandron.

  • Domnus Oric reaches out to Smith Pulfric learning the general whereabouts of Parewan (Contacts, Create an Advantage Obstacle 4, Success).
  • Domnus Grimaer is out talking with the crowds attempting to drum up anger over Parewan. (Rapport via Stunt, Overcome Obstacle 5, Failure choosing Success with Great Cost.) The crowds agree with Domnus Grimaer that justice must be served to Parewan, but turn and say it is the Magistrates who cause trouble. “We don’t need the Magistrates! They bring nothing but trouble!”
  • Coathios goes hunting to find the largest cattle from the fields. He wants to make sure that Skollis is well fed and rested for the upcoming hunt. The cattle are theirs to eat. (Notice, Create an Advantage Obstacle 4, Success)

The Hunt

Two days have passed, but Skollis is confident in getting the scent. After two days of heavy flight, I compelled Coathios’ delicate Lustrous Nightfang frame to drive him and his rider to ground. Coathios accepted the the compel. (Note: in hindsight, reading through the Lustrous Nightfang is not frail and easy to tire.)

Skollis and Grimaer continued on. In flight I called for a Notice check on Skollis and Grimaer, though encouraged a bit of a retroactive Create an Aspect.

  • Grimaer encourage Grimaer to keep the sun at their backs (Lore, Create an Advantage, Obstacle 3, Success with Style).
  • Skollis notices a single ballista and three men (Notice, Overcome, Obstacle 3, Success). There are also grazing sheep nearby, not a distraction for this well-fed and rested brazen bolter.
  • Skollis and Grimaer remain unnoticed proceed to fly around to gain an ambush (Stealth, Overcome, Obstacle 4, Success).
  • A quick ambush ensues. Skollis destroys a ballista, kills a human, injures a second, and captures a third.

A gentle interrogation proceeds, with words of honor exchanged, and the captive released. Parewan is in fact in a cave nearby with 20 men.

The Strike

While Coathios and Oric were waiting, Oric crafted some leather wing enhancements (Craft, Create an Advantage, Obstacle 3, Success with Style) to help.

They agreed to wait until an hour or so before dawn to strike Parewan. So Coathios and Oric took to the air and scouted high in the night sky. They were real quiet (Stealth, Overcome, Obstacle 3, Success with Style) and were waiting.

Coathios’s player opted to spend a Fate point to have Parewan step out to relieve himself. Sounded great by me. Coathios struck fast subduing and dragging off Parewan.

The Deal

Back at their camp Coathios, Oric, Skollis, and Grimaer began bargaining with Parewan. Grimaer, on his honor, promised that if Parewan surrendered himself and the book (a new book written in ancient Indarin) that all of Parewan’s men would be free to disperse. Parewan accepted the terms.

They flew back to the camp where Parewan explained the situation. One by one he said farewall to each man and woman by name, also naming their spouses and children.

Wrap Up

We closed the session with a mission accomplished. In game, four days have passed since Bowid gave the assignment.

It has been a long time since I ran a Fate game, but I was willing to fake an awful lot of things. There are a few things I need to lookup.

Observations

The game that I ran felt as though it belonged in the world of the previous games of Dragonknight I’ve played. In part this is because I’ve had the privilege to play four sessions with the creator of the game. But the richness of the setting generator helps fold the common themes back in upon themselves.

And sweet heavens do I love the detail of honor. I made sure to emphasize that the absence of the empathy skill and the value of honor mean that when you say “On my honor” people will believe you. It is a big thing.

There are too many nuances of the setting for me to have “digested” and gotten right. Conveying the spirit of the campaign world is a challenge. I did not put the “So you’re a Magistrate” paper in front of the magistrate player, so there me be a deviation from canon, but I feel like we have enough moving parts to set things in motion.

I have more thoughts but the hour draws late.

Fond Memories of the Kenku

For a few years in high school and college, I had a tradition of running a New Year’s Eve one shot. We would order up a six foot sub, plenty of caffeine, and start gaming around 5pm. Our sessions would last until 8am or so.

One session, I believe it was December 31st, 1993, I had a very rudimentary adventure planned out. The characters were going to escort a diplomat to another dignitary’s seat of power. I had a few set pieces in mind:

I also provided the characters. If memory serves they were 8th level or so in AD&D 2E. The characters were:

  • A human priestess of Sune
  • A dwarf fighter/thief
  • A human thief/diviner
  • A human fighter
  • And a few others now lost to my memory

As I was handing out characters, I gave my friend Matt the Diviner/Thief. It was a finesse character with no apparent ability to directly influence things (poor Strength and Charisma).

Matt looked at the character sheet and ask: “Why do I speak Gnomish?”

And that is when the wheels went in motion. He was working for the gnomes but something went sour. An early scene established that Kenku were slighted by the gnomes and were going to take it out on him.

This was one of the first times that I had truly improvised my game based on a question from the player. And as it turned out, this left a lasting impression on me.

First, I have always been particular to diviners. Even when I play Apocalypse World I gravitate towards high Sharp characters, attempting to observe and build an advantage.

Second, the power of asking questions at the table cannot be understated. While the details of the encounter with the Kenku are lost, I believe everyone at the table enjoyed the dynamism of an encounter where it wasn’t simply “Kill someone.”

Third, Kenku. I fell in love with the avian masters of subterfuge. While I haven’t brought them back into play, I’ve always had them waiting in the wings.

So this past week, I began exploring how I might use Kenku. Thinking more about their motivations and social structure.

Write-up for Fate Core

Kenku
Aspects: That Shiny will be Mine!, Blackmailing Information Broker
Skills: Good (+3) Deceive, Fair (+2) Stealth, Average (+1) Contacts, Burglary
Stunts: Mimicry. Can mimic familiar sounds, voices, and accents.
Stress: 2 boxes

Write-up for Dungeon World

Kenku Group, Stealthy, Devious, Organized, Intelligent, Cautious, Hoarder
Short sword (d4 damage 1 piercing) 6 HP 2 armor
Close

“I’m telling you, he had a beak and clawed hands!” said the prisoner.

“Right. I’ve heard that one before. And there were a dozen of them,” said the jailer.

“Yeah! How’d you know?”

“Because you ain’t the first. I’ve heard lots of things. But the idea that there are a bunch bird men running things in this city is absurd. Think about it? Wouldn’t someone have caught on by now? The council? The guards? The guilders? Shut up and face up to it…you did something stupid, and 10 years hard labor is your reward.”

Instinct: To collect that which shines

  • Pass through society without drawing attention
  • Mimic the sound of anything ever heard
  • Blackmail: Let other people do your dirty work!
  • Where there is one, many are sure to be found

A Spark in Fate Core by Jason Pitre

One of the things that drew me to Fate was Diaspora‘s collaborative world building and character creation. I quickly picked up Dresden Files and Legends of Anglerre to see other takes on this collaborative world creation.

Then today, in the Fate Core Community of Google+Jason Pitre posted a link to his free A Spark in Fate Core (CC BY 3.0). It takes the previous iterations of Fate games, pulls the collaborative process up to the Genre level and then quite simply crushes it!

First, Jason enumerates what makes a good Fate game: Characters are Proactive, Competent, and lead Dramatic Lives. If that sounds like the type of characters you will be creating and playing, then A Spark in Fate Core is definitely for you.

Once he establishes the types of characters he moves on to the steps of collaborative world building.  It is simple straightforward advice with a focus on making sure everyone is on the same page regarding the game they are about to play.

When Creating Your Game

  1. You start by listing your favourite Media.
  2. Explain the Inspirations from your media.
  3. Use those inspirations to Describe the Genre.
  4. Decide how epic or personal in Scale your story will be.
  5. Establish Facts about the Setting.
  6. Create a Title to focus your vision.
  7. Create a list of Sparks (potential Issues) for the setting.
  8. Select the Issues, picking three of them from the list of Sparks.
  9. Create two Faces for each Issue.
  10. Create a Place for each unused Spark.

While the process need not be specific to Fate Core, it does highlight an advantage of Fate; You can rather easily mold the rules to reflect the style of game. The various questions for creating your game will ultimately determine the types of conflicts and the approaches to conflict resolution.

So say thank you to Jason by downloading a copy of A Spark in Fate Core and taking a look at Spark Roleplaying Game; a game about “examining your characters’ motivations, convictions, and perspectives.”