Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics

 
http://goodman-games.com/store/product/dungeon-crawl-classics-role-playing-game-4th-printing-copy/

Credits

Writer: Joseph Goodman
Additional Design/Writing: Tavis Allison, Michael Curtis, Andy Frielink, Todd Kath, Doug Kovacs, Harley Stroh, Steven Tivierge, Dieter Zimmerman
Art: Jeff Dee, Jeff Easley, Jason Edwards, Tom Galambos, Friedrich Haas, Jim Holloway, Doug Kovacs, Diesel Laforce, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Jesse Mohn, Peter Mullen, Russ Nicholson, Erol Otus, Stefan Poag, Jim Roslof, Chad Sergesketter, Chuck Whelon, Mike Wilson
Design: Joseph Goodman
Editor: Aeryn Rudel
Publisher: Goodman Games
Length: Approx. 480pp
SKU: GMG5070
First Edition, First Printing 2012
ISBN: 978-0-9828609-5-3 (PRINT)


A quick preface before we continue to the review of Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games: There are those out there who do not consider DCC RPG a true "old-school" or "OSR" game, because it is mechanically derived from the 3/3.5 edition rules of D&D, known in general parlance as the d20 system. These people are purists, and they're entitled to their not-entirely-incorrect opinion; just as you and I are entitled to our own, they are allowed theirs, and in truth, DCC doesn't truly trace it's mechanics back to the original versions of the game most of us associate the old-school gaming movement with. But the fact of the matter is that Goodman Games wrote a massive love letter to the old-school game; they wrote, drew, played, and published a new game that plays a lot like an old one, that features nearly every single aesthetic note from the olden days right down to hiring a lot of the same classic artists, and which breathes rare originality into the OSR space. It deserves to be considered as OSR as anything else, at least by my measure. For the sake of this article (and any other time DCC comes up around me) I will be referring to it as an old-school game and a part of the OSR movement, such as it is, and I'm sorry if that turns you off.

Enough preamble. Hold on, nerds; it's about to get wordy up in here.


Dungeon Crawl Classics is one of the most successful games in the industry and also possibly the most commercially successful of all the OSR-type games on the market today. It represents maybe the best example of a larger publisher making old-school new again in the right ways. They kept everything they (and most of us) love about the old-school D&D games we played back in the day, and continue to play today, and they used their own unique mechanical take on it to keep it fresh and interesting.

Let's not break too much from my nascent review tradition here: let's start with the book itself. As of this writing, DCC is on it's 6th printing, though they announced on 22 July 2018 that they'd be preparing for the 7th printing of the core rules later in the month, following their return from GenCon. It exists in a great variety of cover variants, both softcover and hardcover alike:

 
 

Luckily, for most versions, besides errata and corrections, there is little difference internally despite the sheer variety in covers and printings.

What we see when we open this book is a figurative cannonade of old-school artwork. The first several pages of the book are full splash artwork, edge to edge, evoking mood created by the books of old. This is achieved very simply: Goodman Games went out of their way to have artwork done by old-school luminaries like Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, David "Diesel" Laforce, and Jim Roslof. It is clear from the first page of this massive book that they are absolutely dedicated to capturing the aesthetic present from B/X (or BECMI) through AD&D2E. They achieve this goal. It must have been quite a task for Joseph Goodman, who served as art director on the project in addition to his duties as designer and writer, to assemble this motley crew of artists and then sort through their contributions. Luckily for him, the old books weren't inherently cohesive, artistically, and so the DCC core book doesn't really need to be, either. For lovers of the old art style that D&D leaned on so heavily in the early days, there are few missteps in this book; though some pages have a more modern, digital sensibility, even those pieces are meant to resemble greyscale pen-and-ink artwork from years past. Most pieces are heavy on the crosshatching and stippling to create values and contrast, and across approximately 480 pages, the book offers no shortage of incredible black and white artwork to digest. For a lot of us, a huge part of the RPG experience - from imagination and inspiration to actual tabletop play - is based around the amazing flights of fancy conjured up by artists. I think, personally, this is especially true for old-school gamers; for a lot of us, there wasn't such a huge variety of fantasy artwork available immediately to us and so the pages of our few and varied D&D books were like our first and sometimes only windows into imaginary vistas that we'd never have seen on our own. For me, personally, sitting down and paging through the DCC core book is a joyous experience and truly does recapture that sense of new adventure promised to us all by those old books - and most of this is due to the beautiful and imperfect pen-and-ink style of artwork all over this book.

Results - Art: 5/5 Because my nostalgia itch is extremely satisfied

It is hard to review the book's construction comprehensively because there's so many printings out there and I don't own one of each, but as far as I have seen, they feature sharp and crisp printing with very readable font selection and a good balance of art and text. The book's immense size, clocking in so heavily at nearly 500 pages, means that there is an absolutely astounding amount of information contained within. Because of this, it becomes easy to get bogged down in how much of it there is, and because of this, we experience the first jarring sensation of "new school." Those of us used to B/X are comfortable with an entire game held within the confines of a ~64pp booklet. Most of the derivatives of B/X so common to the OSR are similarly reasonable with page counts. DCC is a wild outlier in the OSR (hence some of the bickering about "OSR-adjacent, not OSR") in that it is a truly hefty book that has a lot of specifics within it. Part of this is due to the mechanics that the folks at Goodman leaned on; in addition to using the d20 system as a base for their rules set, they leveraged the "weird" dice set pioneered by Lou Zocchi decades ago - d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30 - plus the 7-die set of platonic solids that we're all used to by now. The result here is that so much variety is possible, but as a side-effect, so much variety must also be explained and done so in a very clear, explicit style as to avoid confusion. We end up with some fatigue at points in the book.

Predictably, a large portion of the book is dedicated to magic and spells, which are themselves the subject of a portion of this review because Goodman Games did good work there. Less predictably, a large portion of the book is also full of monsters and treasure (things D&D players traditionally associate with multiple books), and therefore the "required reading" page count isn't actually as massive as it seems at the outset. Some of the page count is even given over to a pair of complete adventures. With these chunks essentially just reference material for magic-users and GMs, the page count you need to familiarize yourself with to get playing is pretty manageable. The book is laid out in a fashion that wants to be fairly easily followed, though the numerous tables, lists, and art splashes sometimes end up jarring the flow of information. There are pages with tons of uninteresting, wasted white space and overly simplistic layout that serve largely to show the reader why the truly canny artistic designers out there (like Luka Rejec and Alex Mayo) are so valuable. In some ways, this is a fair reminder of the old books it apes, but I think it'd be giving Goodman Games just a tiny bit too much credit to suggest that all of the weird layout issues are intentional homages to a simpler time. In reality, there's just a ton of text and a ton of artwork in this book, and a very simplistic approach to combining the two which leads to a few hiccups. It makes you appreciate what we've learned from some of the high water marks of the industry, but it also makes it a little slower to get through a book like this and really digest it.

Results - Layout: 3/5 Page layout is often mediocre or worse

Obviously, as with any RPG book, the writing is key. It comes as no surprise that we require clear and concise writing with a strong authorial tone to convey both the mechanics and the ideas that we need to be successful as players and GMs. This book is certainly no different. If anything, it leans very heavily on this because of the sheer variety of dice involved; it is tremendous fun to have so many dice in play but also it is incredibly difficult to keep every possible mechanic in mind with such a variety without the intervention of great writing.

DCC is extremely good at getting ideas, mood, and tone across. It opens with an introductory page in the style of an illuminated manuscript laying out the core prerequisites for enjoyment and play of DCC, from a love of the old art to a working knowledge of the weirdo dice to the acceptance of the inevitability of danger and adventure for its own sake. DCC is especially good at getting these ideas and moods across to newcomers to old-school gameplay, because it is absolutely explicit in many of the tenets of the old style it clones. It makes clear the concepts of rapid and constant death and danger; it is blatant in the explanations of players running multiple characters at once at low level play and presents its core mechanics very clearly. However, brevity is not in the cards for many sections of this book, and indeed, it becomes difficult for readers to pick the most critical information out of the blocks of text. Some of this is a layout and editing issue - a lot of what is long-form text and full sentences could be distilled to point form (if I can fit like two whole B/X monster statblocks in a single tweet, you can make a Halfling's mechanics take less than three pages full of awkward whitespace and long-form text, Mr. Goodman). Some of this is also an authorial issue, though. I am no stranger to the failure to be succint. I am verbose. I am incredibly long-winded when I am excited. Conversely, look at Zak Smith - that man can write in six words the same exciting idea that I'd spend thirty on, and probably get better results. So I get where Goodman Games comes from on this, and to some degree they are simply following the footsteps of Gygax et al in the old D&D books, where we all had to wade through archaic words and outdated sentence structures carried over from wargame manuals that were frankly pretty old (and made for an even older audience) when Chainmail was written. But nowadays we know better, to some degree, and we should know for sure that in a game manual with as many moving parts as DCC, brevity is going to pay dividends in keeping information accessible to players new and old alike.

Results - Writing and Editing (Technical): 2/5 Text is not as digestible as we'd all probably like

On the other hand, though, we fall back to my opinion that Joseph Goodman is extremely good at evoking the style and tone he clearly adores from the games we grew up with and which are now the subject of a great big revival through the OSR and DIY D&D movements. It shines through in nearly every section of the book. If you can read through DCC and not get a huge grin on your face constantly from Joseph Goodman's obvious love for old-school role-playing games and the way he writes those long-form sentences and paragraphs about subjects he's excited about, you're probably a lich. Get yourself checked, and hide your phylactery well.

DCC is an incredible window into the themes of the adventure genre that spawned the role-playing games we love. It even calls itself a blend of Appendix N and the 3E rules. Its examples are lifted straight from games played in a basement lit by an incandescent bulb in 1981. Its style is reminiscent of the AD&D books written by Gary himself at times, but it is clearly informed by the decades since Moldvay took a swing at D&D - in that Joseph Goodman is able to leverage the audience's understanding of both 3/3.5 edition D&D and the old-school era.

I've already called DCC a love letter to the old-school era, and that really is a key statement to the understanding of Joseph Goodman's approach to DCC. He is writing a game, in many respects from the ground up, that has to find every possible bridge between modern mechanical sensibilities and the older style (and a bunch of weird dice). In this book you can open any text-heavy page and see Joseph Goodman writing with the enthusiasm of a true believer, someone who not only venerates what came before but who wishes to make something worthy of the legacy. He uses flowery sentences, he lifts examples out of classic genre fiction (Mighty Deeds of Arms referencing Zorro, for example), and he borrows vocabulary that wouldn't find a home elsewhere in the era of modern games.

Results - Writing (Thematic): 5/5 This book has an Appendix N, but it also is an Appendix N

In the end, though, combining the technical side of writing with the creative side of writing, the content itself within DCC is both exceptionally plentiful and of high quality. This immense book contains not only the entire mechanical system; it contains not only the entirety of the game's core spells and monsters and equipment; it contains also two complete adventures. The first is for levels 0-1, an introductory game to set the stage for an adventure campaign leveraging what is arguably DCC's most inspired and wonderful mechanic: the funnel (more on this in a bit). The second is for level 5 player characters and should serve admirably for those brave few who survive long enough to reach such lofty heights. In approximately 480 pages, Goodman Games provide a tremendous value for the dollar; they charge less than the three core books of the current 5th edition of D&D (or, for that matter, any edition's three core books) but provide you with the system itself, character generation, monsters, spell lists, gear lists, magical item and treasure lists, inspirational and guiding appendices, two full adventures, and an absolutely embarrassing number of tables from mundane to fantastic to enable nearly endless combinations of play. The tables alone are basically worth the price of admission - they are imaginative as they are varied, and cover ground from monster-specific critical hit result tables to occupations and backgrounds (great for NPC generation, too). It's a wealth of information for GMs of any game at all, and though at times the layout leaves things to be desired, the sheer volume of tools and kits you can pick and choose to steal from and play out of the box in any fantasy game is nearly unmatched. This is a truly gameable book. You can take basically any part of it independently to your own game and bolt it on with a little bit of work and make something much better than the sum of its parts, or you can play DCC as-is straight out of the book and possibly never run out of variety at the table. It is a game. It is a real and true game meant to be played and every part of it from beginning to end reflects a desire to present imaginative gameplay possibilities and a sense of wide-open possibility at the table. If you somehow ignored the majority of the book and just focused on the pure tools and pieces for actual gameplay given to you by Goodman Games in DCC, you'd still have one of the all-time best examples of useful, gameable content on the planet.

Results - Writing (Content): 5/5 More tables, charts, ideas, and gimmicks than you could ever use

Which brings us to the specifics of some of the content. Within the text of Dungeon Crawl Classics live a mountain of mechanics to run the game. As with any role-playing game, the engine that powers it is arguably the most important aspect to its actual enjoyment at the table. DCC is no different, and its mechanics are the subject of many debates on the internet for a number of reasons. Let's address some key topics.

First of all, it is derived from the d20 system presented by the 3/3.5 edition of D&D. It is not derived from B/X or AD&D directly. It is immediately accessible to those versed in D&D and other d20-based systems; the biggest change to expect when you open DCC is the use of rare Zocchi dice. The d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24, and d30 all find a home here in DCC, in addition to the normal d4, d6, d8, d10, d20, and d% that we're all accustomed to at this point. Though the book offers mathematical mechanisms to replace these uncommon dice, there is a special joy in using the weird dice. For those who want to use the dice without acquiring the dice or doing weird math, online dice rollers and phone apps allow you to simulate their presence at the table very easily (though something is lost in the process; like an old-school game with very modern artwork or a digital character sheet; the ritual of pen and paper and plastic dice is a strangely therapeutic thing for some of us). In all, the dice add more than they detract, but they do come with added complexity and a layer of mechanical memorization that is not present in the OD&D and B/X clones that run smoother and, often, faster.

As a d20-derivative, DCC employs  skills, which for many old-school purists is a sure sign of being "OSR-adjacent" instead of truly an old-school game. These are logically based on your character's background occupation, and are specific to more esoteric questions of capability; meanwhile the common tasks of adventuring are resolved more directly from your statistics and their relation to the issue at hand. As with many old-school games, the thief class plays host to the more specific of the adventuring skills, with standbys such as Find Trap/Disable Trap and Backstab.

Speaking of occupations, our second mechanic to note involves character generation. Unlike the mainstream D&D and derived games, DCC begins at level 0 instead of level 1. The player will rapidly roll up a handful of such level 0 characters, all of whom begin their lives as common professionals randomly derived by rolling on tables with a related assortment of starting gear relevant to their trade. The player will then run these characters through a funnel adventure (more on that in a moment) which represents the attempt of these commoners to trade in their hoes and candelabras for treasure and fame. The survivors will emerge as level 1 adventurers in time, advancing from a commoner of some sort (farmer, blacksmith, candlemaker) to one of the classes we all know and love. When the farmer becomes a thief, he retains his knowledge of seeds and crops, allowing his player to recall these knowledges if they are ever relevant to an adventure, test, trap, or puzzle.

The aforementioned funnel is amongst the most valuable contributions of DCC and Joseph Goodman to the world of role-playing games. I do not say this lightly, though I do prefer to focus on the positives in our hobby; the funnel is an absolutely brilliant abstract concept that lends itself well to nearly any old-school game. The general gist is thus: players generate a number of characters in advance, quickly and easily. These are level 0 commoners, and they seek gold and glory by becoming adventurers. Their initial adventure separates the wheat from the chaff and exemplifies the role of luck in the role-playing game. The funnel is deadly and merciless, and the many characters of each player will be winnowed by trap and foe alike before the end. Each player will lose several such novice characters through the course of the funnel in hilarious and catastrophic ways, sometimes through fault of terrible stats and equipment and sometimes through sheer bad luck on a single die roll mere moments from success and safety. Any characters that survive will progress and eventually end up a level 1 character in a given class (such as thief, or cleric). The luckier players may end up escaping a funnel with several survivors; the gameplay style evident in DCC ensures that will not last for many more levels in all likelihood, and so it is structured to allowed the GM to manage groups of players with a small stable of surviving characters at early levels. The funnel is a fun concept, eminently gameable and suitable for everything from an open-table game to a convention game to an ongoing campaign starter. The particulars of the funnel concept make it extremely compatible with nearly any game; because of the fragility of first-level OD&D and B/X characters, you could easily adapt it for use as a campaign starter in those games or their compatible clones and derivatives - and in my experience, you'll have a blast doing so.

The other noteworthy feature of DCC is the emphasis placed on the wild nature of magic. Magic in DCC has the potential to have great consequences. It is mercurial and strange, and this is incredibly appealing to me. I have stolen this mechanic outright for use with nearly every fantasy game I've played since (and, to be frank, had less-realized versions of it houseruled into games before I played DCC as well). It is a brilliant system and I highly encourage everyone to use it in their own games regardless of version. It creates a great tension when magic is employed; it tones down some moments of wizard spotlight by adding an element of risk to nearly everything. Critical failures are terrible and weird and dangerous; critical successes are cause for great celebration. At the same time that the wild magic of DCC can tone down or balance wizards, related mechanics such a spellburn give magic-users the chance to excel when it really counts and give the players moments of great choice. Choice is the most important aspect of our games in most cases, and allowing magic-user players to choose when to sacrifice critical features for greater successes creates exciting moments of agency for the table - and Joseph Goodman, as he does throughout the book, couches the mechanic in an extremely fanciful and interesting roll table to randomize thematic expression of the mechanic in gameplay (a mechanical example is a wizard sacrificing 7 points of Strength to a demon to ensure +7 bonus to his next spell; this is achieved in-game with the aid of a roll table offering role-playing options such as "the wizard must cut his cheeks and let the blood flow down his face" on a 21 or "the wizard must yank out his hair and burn it" on a 5). These interwoven systems are truly inspired takes on magic use in an RPG. The DCC magic system returns magic to a ritualistic, mysterious, dangerous, unknowable power; it recalls Robert E. Howard's Conan stories for me, and that's a great thing.

Result - Mechanics: 5/5 So many amazing systems ready to be used or borrowed

The conclusion I am slowly reaching here, at great length, is that DCC deserves its place in the hallowed annals of the old-school revival. It is an old-school game in spirit, cover to cover, and what it modernizes in some respects it equals by throwing something more obscure or bizarre into the mix. It is genuinely a testament to Joseph Goodman's love of the games he grew up with, and indeed, it is clearly a labor of love by the entirety of the cadre of credited creators. It is nearly unmatched in inspiration and imagination; the sheer volume of tables and charts is an embarrassment of riches that you could use to randomly generate entire games with ease. The art team for this book is full of hall-of-famers and those who sincerely picked up the old-school torch, and even if you were illiterate the art collected herein would be enough to get you imagining exciting stories and characters.


Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they'd all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.


DUNGEON CRAWL CLASSICS: 8/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:

Rating: 

I'm giving this book a final assessment of four fluffy jerks in a trashcan out of five. Goodman Games did an amazing job that will go down in the role-playing canon as one of the best of all time. Its mechanics and inspiring tools will be borrowed and adapted by players of dozens of other systems and will prove their worth there over and over. It will remain a favorite game of convention players for years to come. Its only drawback is some questionable layout and editing choices that make digesting its somewhat deep and extensive mechanical content a little difficult (or at least slow) at times. Otherwise, this is amongst my most favorite games ever made, and comes highly recommended for purchase (not an affiliate link). Great job, Goodman Games!
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4 comments:

  1. How close is it to 3E? For instance, are there 20 levels? Do you get skill points each level? Do saves vary greatly?

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    Replies
    1. Phill, there are only ten levels in DCC at this time. There are 11, if you count the 0-level commoner occupation you begin with before The Funnel subtracts from the herd and reveals the strongest and luckiest.

      There are no additional skill points; you begin with skills from your prior background at 0-level. For example, a farmer potentially would know what some magical seeds are, and can roll to determine that as a trained individual (1d20, roll over DC) whereas a butcher would be versed in pig entrails instead and would roll to determine the seeds as untrained (1d10 roll over DC). You don't progress in these skills; you progress in the business of sorcery or stabbing or stealing.

      Saves definitely vary.

      It is derived from d20 in some clear ways and some opaque ways but at the end of the day it uses the OGL as its basis and so it caught a lot of flack from purists who do not believe anything not derived directly from AD&D, B/X, or OD&D is truly OSR; I feel this is nonsense but to each their own!

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  2. DCC is OSR, and those who say it's not, don't understand what OSR means.

    They don't understand the R, and some don't understand the S, either: they would call B/X or BECMI OSR. What's more, some even affirm that Warhammer is OSR: https://uncaringcosmos.com/new-game/

    LotFP uses a more detailed skill system than DCC and no one would dare to say LotFP is adjacent and not real OSR.

    At least a few important OSRs use ascending AC and not even the purest among purists would say they are adjacent. Basic Fantasy and LotFP are examples.

    That's because, though there's an overlap between the two, OSR and retroclone are not synonyms. OSR is about the old-school style of play, not about the exact replica of the mechanics.

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