Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Impressions of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG

Yep, it’s time to talk about the elephant in the blogosphere.

Perhaps something of a caveat is in order before I get into my impressions on Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (hereafter referred to as DCC), the latest and arguably greatest roleplaying phenomenon to come down the proverbial pike since…take your pick: Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Castles & Crusades, Hackmaster Basic, OpenQuest, etcetera etcetera ad infinitum.

Here’s the caveat: I’m grumpy today. It’s in the 90’s here in good old Southern New Jersey. It’s not even summer. These temperatures are no doubt going to be the norm from now on thanks to climate change. I miss my nice full springtime. I dread the disappearance of the equinoxes. Another part of the caveat: perhaps the massive solar flare of yesterday has affected my mind.

Now the third and perhaps most pertinent part of the caveat: for good or ill, I usually don’t react well to hype. Whenever something seems to be super popular (or infamous), my gut reaction is to distrust said hype (again, whether the hype is positive or negative). But I’m trying to set that knee-jerk reaction aside, as well as my grumpiness, when I write about DCC in a moment. I am not going to do an in-depth review per se, but I wanted to give some impressions as I scan through it, in the spirit of sharing.

Let me open by saying that there certainly was a lot of blogosphere hype leading up to the game’s beta release today. I think we can all agree on that. That hype did ignite my knee-jerk negativity toward anything trendy. But even putting that aside, there still seems something a wee bit suspect about how much positive press DCC was getting seemingly sight unseen. To me, it sounded like a few DCC insiders were active in the blogosphere in order to lay some groundwork before the release. I guess that could be considered “astroturfing” (i.e. a false grass roots movement) to get the OSR crowd primed for the game.

Now all that said, I’m trying not to be so skeptical. I don’t really want to believe all that. But it’s still strange to me that there was so much of a positive buzz surrounding the game before the beta. I guess some of the big OSR movers and shakers could have gotten advance copies of the beta, given their influence in the blogosphere. Anyway, just something to think about…

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, let me spend some time going over some impressions as I go through the beta.

First of all, the art. I know there’s been some negative and positive reactions to the art. Some see it as too plentiful and/or too “professional” for a game that claims to be “old school.” Personally, I like it. I never got the whole “old school must equal amateur art” thing. I think those who feel that way are just being overwhelmed by nostalgia. To me, the art is not too obtrusive, adding just the right amount of balance and breaking up the text nicely. I like the juxtaposition of the comic strip pieces and the more serious depictions of adventurers. The comics seem inspired by the old strips one might find in the old Dragon magazines. I really love the little touches of homage, like the drawing on page 17 that’s a recreation of the AD&D alignment drawing.

I’m not down with the Zocchi dice thing. If I actually play the game, I’ll be resorting to rolling the appropriate old fashioned, even-numbered dice and dividing as needed (if possible, as I believe there are some Zocchi dice that are not so easily divisible). Ultimately, my opinion is that this usage of "weird" dice is mostly just a gimmick, and that just doesn't sit well with me.

I like the “How is this game different” bit near the beginning. That was quite helpful. BUT it also sort of telegraphs the fact that the game is really for gamers, don’t you think? It makes it seem to me that there was never any real hope that the game will be discovered by newbies to the hobby. This might tap into one of the broader arguments in the OSR regarding whether or not the old-school gaming phenomenon will be able to pull in many new gamers (or if those who make up the OSR really want to have new blood brought in at all). On the other hand, perhaps Goodman Games is hoping the veterans will seek to introduce a new generation of gamers to the old-school style. That’s the possibility that makes me feel the happiest, and I hope that was the intention, since I’m one of those bleeding heart old school gamers who wants everyone to just get along when it comes to roleplaying (translation: screw the edition wars!).

Anyway, I’m glad that the game goes out of its way to proclaim that there are no attacks of opportunity. I HATE attacks of opportunity above all other latter-day D&D “additions.” This and some of the other declarations make it seem like the guys at Goodman Games are tapped into the OSR zeitgeist, if there is such a thing. All I know is, it made me smile. But that’s all because of personal preference.

I was intrigued by the mechanic that would allow wizards to NOT lose spells once they are cast. It’s like some semi-Vancian magic system, something that might appeal to gamers who are perennially turned off by the relative weakness of low-level magic users.

The game seems rather complicated in some areas, at least when it comes to the usual simplicity of old school games. For instance, I’ve tried to think about a quick and easy counterspell mechanic that can be used with Castles & Crusades. I’ve always dreamed of having mage duels in my games. It was cool to see the spell duel rules in DCC. I’m heartened to see someone feels the way I do. BUT their spell dueling system seems complicated to me. Lots of steps involved. Now, I may just be getting old and have limited free time, and that’s why I prefer very rules-light systems. So take all this with a grain of salt.

I know, I know, I’ve stumbled into the dangerous realm of “does old school mean rules light or not.” I don’t necessarily think that old school games need to be super-duper rules light, but they are at least lighter for the most part. Let’s not get into that whole mess right now.

As far as skill checks are concerned, I wasn’t impressed with what was shown in the beta rules. They’re just ported over from D&D 3.0/3.5 whole cloth. Blah. I’m not really upset by the use of skill checks. I just don’t see anything innovative about what DCC is doing here. Heck, my beloved Castles & Crusades uses skill checks, just a slightly different take on the mechanic. I just hope that they don’t go touting this aspect of the game as revolutionary.

This and other aspects of the game that I’m reading don’t strike me as terribly different from what has come before. And wasn’t DCC touted as being something innovative? To tell you the truth, it really seems like someone did a really professional job on a house-ruled, “Frankenstein’s monster” system that borrows a little bit of everything from the various fantasy RPGs that have existed over the last three or so decades.

So bottom line: I don’t feel a real urge to play this game once the full version comes out. I think there was a lot of hype about it being innovative, but that was mostly just advertising for lack of a better word. I don’t fault Goodman Games for trying to add another facet to the OSR diamond. I won’t even get all skeptical and cynical and claim that Goodman just did it to cash in on the OSR (unlike WotC, who I am convinced are trying to cash in on the OSR). I am sure that the Goodman folks are passionate and honest folk with good intentions. But while I can appreciate the homage to the origins of the hobby, and I think there are some ideas they put forth that are intriguing and fresh, there isn’t enough “new” when it comes to DCC to truly make it the game-changer (no pun intended) it was made out to be. It’s another potentially solid addition to the wondrous variety of games on the market. Now, depending on your stance on the whole topic of whether or not there can be too many games to choose from, this can be a good or bad thing. Me, I can sometimes swing back and forth, but most of the time I think the more the merrier.

Of course, this is all based on the beta rules. I might take a look at a copy of the full rules once they hit the street.

So there you have it. I’ve added my opinion to the growing cacophony. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on DCC if you’re so inclined.

UPDATE: I also forgot to mention that I'm also grumpy because I didn't get to go to my regular Wednesday Night C&C session! Grrr...


  1. I've been waiting for a review like this on DCC, I kinda feel the same way you do, and I'm really not liking the cut and paste skill system you mentioned. Not that I'm anti-skills for my RPG's just that I was expecting something different for DCC.

    I have a bad habit of wanting to buy anything new and exciting, so your review has given me some things to consider. Maybe as the weeks roll on and we start seeing the results of the beta testing some of the issues we both have may be worked out.


  2. Thanks Eric! Here's some other good "first impression" reviews:

  3. I guess some of the big OSR movers and shakers could have gotten advance copies of the beta

    I did, FWIW. I am sure I am not alone.

  4. Drace- thanks for the link to my blog.

    As for DCC, I'm finding a lot to like and a lot I'm not liking. I need to read further into the beta document myself.

  5. @James: Hello! I figured that you and a few others would have been given advanced access to the beta. That's not a knock against Goodman Games or you, by the way. I'm not saying that Goodman Games "bribed" you or others to give only glowing reviews of the beta. But I'm sure they did their best to get in your good graces ;-) Seriously though, I don't think any OSR bloggers are easily brainwashed or cajoled into mindlessly supporting any new product.

    @Tenkar: no prob, your blog is one of my daily staples! As for DCC, yes, there is a lot of like/dislike on my part as well. But, my main issue is that I don't see where the game is that innovative, and I feel that it was hyped as being something new. I know they called it a "reimagining" and not a retro-clone. I don't think it's a retro-clone, but I do think it's a "mashup" of ideas from many other games. And that's not new.

  6. Hey there - thanks for this candid review. I have to say that I was sucked in by the hype before the BETA rules came out yesterday. I'm still reading through it, but this caught my attention:

    I really love the little touches of homage, like the drawing on page 17 that’s a recreation of the AD&D alignment drawing.

    "Homage" is putting it lightly. It's pretty much the exact same picture! :)

    I'll definitely read through the rest of the rules, but having read your review I think I'm going to end up not purchasing this when it comes out.

    I can't really describe what I'm looking for necessarily, but new rules systems aren't really what I need at this point. I think I'm more in the market for seeing how existing systems can be changed to account for different styles of play, like a more gritty Swords & Sorcery ("Pulp Fantasy?"), low-magic game, versus the High Fantasy prevalent in the latter editions of D&D. At this point in my life, I'm inclined not to have to learn an entire new system, but would rather just see modifications made to an existing system I already use.

    I was hoping that DCC might kind of go that route based on what I'd been reading, but now it looks like it's not all that different. Oh, well.

  7. Martin: wow, that's the first time that someone has told me that they won't be buying something because of a review I wrote! Thanks!

  8. "Homage" is putting it lightly. It's pretty much the exact same picture! :)

    Well, that might be because both the "homage" and the original are by the same artist. :)