09 February 2015

...and now I want to run DCC

I don't normally get what some people casually call "GM ADD." I've been running a FantasyCraft game for a couple of months now and it's going great. [1] The system isn't really ideal for my preferred type of play, and the system itself has some objective faults that are going to result in us dropping our characters and starting over from level 1, but that's part of the fun! It's nice to have a system that's broad enough that everybody has six or seven ideas, and it's fun to tinker in the system. It's broad but not too deep, and manages to scratch a neat character design itch without suffering too badly from ivory tower design.

And yet...

I read through the DCC PDF on a hunch. There was a good deal of fanfare about it back in the day and everybody who playtested it had positive opinions and house-rules out the ass for it. That's a good sign, in my book. Easily house-ruled systems are systems that are easy to make your own, and systems that inspire passion. Somehow, still, it passed me by. I continued on my GMing adventure, playing Dark Heresy (mediocre), 4th edition D&D (bad), Dungeon World (good), and 5th edition D&D (too early to tell).

The PDF absolutely floored me. First impression: This book is huge! There's no way that this book is as old-school as it says; it's got to be some sort of neo-grognard [2] 3.x influenced crap. Full disclosure: This impression lasted exactly one page. The Table of Contents is gorgeous. The Proclamations? Tone-setting. Tongue-in-cheek, intentionally pretentious, and hilarious. The introduction? Concise and helpful. The introduction text to the Character chapter? A scared looking and motley crew venturing into the dark with a torch, accompanied by text reminding all that you are not a hero, but "an adventurer, a reaver, a cutpurse, a heathen-slayer, a tight-lipped warlock." Beautiful.

But what really sold me was the funnel. What a perfect system! It immediately drives home the simplicity of generating characters, assures players that these characters will die, sets them on a task from which most of them won't come home, and immediately turns the survivors into level one characters. I could write an essay on the brilliance of this simple (and unique!) mechanic but I'll just be quick.

The really big reason that the funnel is so brilliant is three fold. Firstly, it's the first thing a new player will read. The second sentence in the chapter is "most of these characters will die." You are attempting to survive, and the survivors will be rewarded with a level. It tells you character death is not scary. You'll get over it.

Second, it requires players to use 3d6 but softens this by making multiple characters. You're not rolling 3d6 and dropping shit. You're playing the character, warts and all, and you have to do the best with what you've got. I've gotten into discussions (arguments) about this before and I stand by my point that random character generation is perfectly valid- and this game neatly side-steps anything by giving you a huge variety of choice and then letting you, the player, choose how you want to handle this. You can coddle your "favorites" and let the 1 HP ropemaker with 6 Luck stand in front and hopefully catch the arrow and let that 17 strength slave survive.

Third, you generate random gear and occupations! This leads you directly into making up stories for your characters and encourages clever use of items. When your cooper has a crowbar, barrel, and waterskin as their only possessions, you're going to try and roll the barrel onto people or throw it on their heads or hide in it because your other options are a)fight the skeleton that's marching towards you, b) run away, or c)stand there and hope it's friendly. It's beautiful.

I really enjoy each and every one of the classes, which is unusual. Clerics get a neat mechanic where each sequential casting is harder, and it straight up says "Do not use your powers in a way that would make your god mad or you'll suffer disfavor." There's a disapproval table, and as I found out reading through it, something like 75% of the book is actually tables. It has modifiers listed for trying to use divine power while not acting in the interest of the divinity, and rules for sacrificing material wealth for greater power. Turning unholy is one of my least favorite abilities in other editions (who gives a shit about undead specifically), but what you turn depends on your alignment. Lawful clerics are bog-standard, but Chaotic clerics turn angels and paladins and law-aligned humanoids, and Neutral clerics can turn animals, undead, monsters, lycanthropes, and aberrations! Neat!

Thieves get your basic old-school thief abilities, but it's very explicitly incredible. You can hide in broad daylight if you roll well enough! It's a nice balance between having a thief class and implying that only thieves can climb or steal or hide. You're better or worse at some of them depending on your alignment. Lawful theives are trap-springers and scouts, Chaotic theives are murderous thugs, and Neutral thieves are your classic stealermans. The chart is kind of hard to read but there are 13 skills so it's whatever. You only have to look at it when you level up.

Warriors get a "deed die" and better crit tables. Deed dice add to attack and damage, so you occasionally get mighty swings of momentum where you're hitting at +4 and really slam into that guy. You can also do "bonus effects" where if your Deed die is 3 or more then you can disarm people or push them over or break their things. It goes into detail with some example deeds. You eventually get more actions that you can use to do things, so a warrior's pretty deadly. Probably the "strongest" class to play, and it's nice that they're not just rolling to hit and standing there. They're a complex class in their own right, really.

Wizards are fantastic. Each spell is its own self-contained thing, and they are all weird. Learning spells requires you to do some gnarly stuff, sometimes, or cost you a lot of money, and rolling too low means that bad things happen to everybody around you and you might even get corrupted. I'm talking James Raggi / Warhammer Fantasy level badness. In addition, your spells all have bonus effects, called "mercurial magic," that happen every time you cast it. Some of them are almost cataclysmic! To compensate you can "spellburn," which involves a ritual where you do some seriously distasteful things. I'm not going to name them, at all, I'm just going to say that being a wizard makes you a strange, dangerous being to be around. Wizards have patrons you can call upon, not that you probably should. The whole class reads is kind of like that, really. Your party is going to yell at you for casting spells carelessly, and townspeople are going to accuse you of famines and curses everywhere you go.

Dwarves are basically warriors with shield bashing. They can smell gold, which is fun. Elves are allergic to iron, have patrons, and are basically wizard/warriors that are worse at either. Halflings are the strangest departure, in that they are really good at dual-wielding, sneaking, and being lucky. Looks like a fun class, though.

The skills page is one page and says "Roll d10 if you're not skilled at a thing, d20 if you are, +2 if you might be ok at it, and then compare to the DC." It's just 5/10/15/20 all the time, based on how hard it is for a normal human being to do it.

Equipment is short and sweet. Weapons are just sources of damage and are otherwise unremarkeable. Armor increases the badness of your fumbles, so if you're wearing plate mail you're rolling worse results on the fumble chart. Finally, a system were naked barbarian warriors makes sense!

Combat is simple as well. I'll probably forget to apply the combat modifiers but who cares, the real gem here is the crit table. There's one for 0th level characters/wizards, for thieves and halflings, for clerics and elves, and for warriors/dwarves. Wizards are getting lame crits and warriors get awesome ones. Mounted combat is nice and easy, and morale saves make a comeback! I love morale saves. Monsters should get scared and run, and intentionally fighting to the death should be an oddity.

There are three saving throws, which is odd. The one thing I don't miss about old-school games was having multiple saving throws, but at least there's luck, which can take the place of many things you'd use a unified saving throw for anyways.

Magic is detailed, with each spell having its own large chart with effects and drawbacks determined per-spell. It claims that trying to stay on the path of subtle benign magic generally results in longer-lasting mages but rolling a 1 on pretty much anything can doom you to suffer corruption. It's true that you'll generally suffer more minor drawbacks on elemental spells and enchantments but there's always a chance to suffer some corruption. There are ways to boost your spell checks beyond your normal casting die + stat bonus, but none of them are easy and many of them are dangerous.

The rest is Judge stuff which is neat, with the standout rule being the bit about experience. You determine how much encounters are worth after the fact, based on how much trouble they had with it, so that players are always encouraged to bite off a little bit more than they can chew, and no matter how easy an encounter "should have" been, they're rewarded proportional to the effort they expended.

Magic items are flavorful and neat, with rules on crafting them. They're available only to higher levelled characters [3], and usually involves some serious questing, weird components, and dark secrets. I love every word here.

The monsters table has charts to help you make your fantasy less predicteable and stat blocks for a bunch of generic monsters. You are encouraged to make your own and just kind of throw stuff out there. There's a couple of funny entries and a lot of great design on display here.

In summary: I love everything about DCC and as much as I like playing Fantasy Craft I absolutely want to play DCC, ideally right now, with my group. Every inch was lovingly designed by a team that really does understand old-school design and old-school fantasy. The art is beautiful and the book oozes with so much flavor that some of it spilled out of my monitor and is floating around my house. If you haven't read through it yet, you're missing out. I give DCC my absolute highest recommendation.

[1] We just got a couple new people and they are fitting in marvelously, to the point where sometimes we will talk on Skype for hours on end about nothing in particular. I tell them that they are one of my favorite groups to run for all the time, and I really mean it.

[2] It drives me nuts that people will sometimes claim to be grognards and play 3.X D&D. That is not how this works. If you are playing and prefer modern systems with modern expectations of game design or gameplay balance, you are not playing an old-school game and are diametrically opposed to the old-school style. I can't give my endorsement to this. I say this as a person who appreciates both new and old school philosophies, before anybody gets their undies in a knot. This is why I prefer to call myself an "old-school fan," if anybody ever asks.

[3] Another refreshing thing is the way that they specify that 5th level is pretty damn high and makes you a local legend at the very least. There's a chart that specifies how many of a given person would be around, and it repeats over and over that you're playing in a middle ages styled setting where everybody's illiterate and rumors (if there was any basis in truth) are wildly distorted and might not even make sense. Traveling over to the next city is interesting in its own right and going into the wilderness should be more than a little scary. It's really great stuff.