22 July 2013

Manic Monday: DCC RPG review

Note: I am changing Monday from "Sci-Fi Monday" to "Manic Monday" where I post about "whatever."
It has arrived! Dungeon Crawl Classics is a massive 472 page tome. The rules themselves are fairly simple and straight-forward; I read the whole thing (with one caveat) this weekend. The bulk of the manuscript is the section of spell descriptions at 200 pages (that does not include "patron spells"); there's my caveat. I didn't read every single spell effect chart. I read the spell description only on most of them. No need to go through all of that at the moment! And, for the record, this review is more of a first impressions review. As I play and delve more into the game, I plan on posting reviews on classes, systems, spells, etc.
First impressions: wow! This book is beautifully laid out! The art is solid and old school 1979 (with one exception noted below) ; when eye strain was getting to me, I'd pause and flip through the book examining the art; there were several times I'd flip a page and let out an audible "Wow!" All of the cartoons made me chuckle out loud, as well. Very reminiscent of the 1e AD&D DMG.
Content. I had the Beta test rules and was unimpressed at the time. Maybe it was the lack of polish; maybe I didn't know what I wanted yet; I'll admit to be superficial and judging a book by its presentation. Impressions: complexly elegant. Done correctly, this game has systems that are complex but should not intrude into the game like, say, Rolemaster. The charts are relegated to spell-casters and, to a minor extent the mighty deeds of Warriors and Dwarves. Even then, the deed charts are more an example of what can be created with the system by the players!
Yes, that's another important part of this system; the rule structures encourage player creativity and allow for player agency. For example, the warrior's deed die is essentially just a variable BAB (Basic Attack Chance) modifier. However, the player can use his imagination to attempt a special maneuver without any of that 3e silliness of "Well, you don't have the right feat to do that." If the die comes up 3 or better--wham!--it happens. Well, as adjudicated by the DM. As the rules point out, a 1st level Warrior, regardless of his deed roll, is not going to knock over a Duke of Hell. He might stagger him for a round, though, which is still a mighty deed for that level character. The rules suggest that each Warrior (or Dwarf!) create his own personal set of maneuvers. More on that in a later review.
This ruleset is so dense and not in a negative way. Patrons. Interactions between deity and cleric. The use of luck as a truly variable stat. On that, I think too many people miss that one. I've played Hackmaster Fourth Edition since it came out and it's very reminiscent of the Honor system in that game. In fact, I can see myself adapting, or at least referencing, the honor guideline rules as a benchmark for awarding luck to the characters.
I love the fact that crit tables are not determined by level or weapon but instead by the CLASS of the character. And that makes perfect sense! And speaking of weapons, thank you for allowing wizards the use of longbows and longswords! Common sense; my impression is that "Appendix N" literature is the driving force behind the rules and not some idea of game balance.
Class as race. Really. How the heck does that aid player agency? Well, the three core race-classes (Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling) are different. They're not just a fighter/magic-user, fighter, or fighter. The elf starts play with patron bond/invoke patron, something the wizard might not start out with. The dwarf starts with "sword and board" training (has Joseph ever been in the SCA? :D ); that is, if wielding a shield, he gets a free shield bash when attacking that's not hampered by the dual-wielding rules. The halfling, however, is probably the best example of throwing conventions to the wind and going back to the source material.
I have never really been happy with hobbits in D&D. They also feel shoe-horned into their role as thieves or, in B/X and OD&D, just warriors. We never see a hobbit jimmy a lock, pick a pocket, or disarm a trap despite Gandalf calling Bilbo a burglar. What do we see them, all of them (including Gollum!), doing? Sneaking! And that's a class ability. They're also nimble little buggers described as dangerous even when throwing rocks. Well, DCC doesn't go the D&D route of making them good with slings and bows, but they are able to use dual-wielding better than anyone else! Also, they have a better command of luck than the thief and can use their luck to influence other party members. And why was Bilbo ultimately decided on for Thorin's Company? Because he was the LUCKY NUMBER! Well played, Joseph, well played!
Combat is not all that different from other editions. It leans more toward the d20 with ascending AC as the target number and simplified saves but without a reliance on clunky mechanisms such as attacks-of-opportunity or feats. The crit charts are nothing compared to those of Hackmaster and maintain the humor seen in those of Rolemaster and DragonQuest. In fact, with the use of the Purple Sorcerer phone app, they become even less intrusive.
The modified Vancian spell system is awesome! No need for points, memorization, fatigue or any of that jazz. All the spell selection is handled between games and out of play. Resource management is basically gone. Well, unless your cleric is gaining disapproval and then he has to decide to risk casting. :)
Funky Dice. I disliked these back in Beta. However, upon reflection, I see that was silly of me. Even if you don't have them, they're easy to replicate as pointed out in the "funky dice" section.
Unique monsters and magic items. Whoa. Talking about breaking the OSR mold. I understand why some of the crusty grognards dislike this game; I don't agree but I understand. Some of them want to play just like it was 1975 in Gary's game. I invoke Gary's magic word of BALDERDASH! Gary, Dave, and Bob were constantly tinkering with things and throwing players curve balls. I hate to break it to people, but it's 2013 not 1979. That doesn't mean we can't play in that style, but mechanics and expectations have to grow beyond a mere expansion of a wargaming supplement. I mean, do you really want to drive a 1979 car or something more modern? Actually, I want a 1973 Duster 340 V8 with 4 in the floor, but I  digest (to quote Kelly Bundy). And this is where DCC rises above the morass of cut-and-pasted "retro clones" and really shines: by creating a modern game with that old school feel. I can grok it completely.
Dislikes. There are, naturally, a few. The spell descriptions take up a lot of space. It is necessary, but what I would like to see is a "Spell Compendium" as a pdf. Take out the art, maybe the manifestation line, and try to format as many as possible to a page each (not possible with all, I know). That way a player can print out his "grimoire" for use at the table.
There is also a lack of examples in the book. Now, admittedly, Joseph points out early on in the book that this game really is intended for advanced gamers or at least someone who knows what they're doing. The only real combat play-through is in the section on Spell Duels. Did I mention that's another great mechanic? I had visions of Egg Chen and Lo Pan (Big Trouble in Little China) and the fight between Akiro and the evil sorcerers in Conan the Conqueror.
Overall. Well, I obviously have a new love. My dislikes are really not even worth mentioning. Does this game require a lot of thought on the part of the Judge? Yes, but it is time well-spent. I might just run a funnel using The Portal Under the Stars with my children tonight. I'll let y'all know if I do.
Until next time, gentle readers, keep a watch out for the stars: are they right?
Also, let me leave you with a pic of some of my inspirational reading!
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