Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Off the Shelf: Dungeon Crawl Classics

Off the shelf? Well, I wanted a feature for pulling games I may have had off the shelf and giving them another look. Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) is one I have had, but never really had the time to give it proper consideration. Sometimes my schedule only allows me a quick look at a game, I give it a very wrong first impression, and I pick it up later to discover I was completely wrong and this deserves another look.

I shelved DCC because of its size and the perceived complexity of the magic system. It seemed like "too big of a game" to really wrap my head around. I felt the siren's call of Old School Essentials, simple, direct, clean, and that did OSR about the best of any other game.

The truth is, DCC's non-magic rules are about 10% of the game and ultra-simple. 80% of the rest are magic spells and their casting charts. And to compare this to OSE as an old-school game I feel is unfair to both genres - though it can be an OSR style game if you want it to be, but can be a lot lot else too.

A 3.5E Game

DCC shares a lot of design improvements with the classic Basic Fantasy, where the improvements made in 3.5 edition that improved play were kept. Ascending AC. The DC system. Fort, reflex, and will saves. It sticks closer to 3.5 than does Basic Fantasy, so if you can follow the Pathfinder 1e design language everything feels right at home here.

It is clearly a game that uses existing design language and elements to create a new experience. There isn't a B/X emulation here, though it could be played that way for sure.

Gonzo Deadly

The game is gonzo crazy, deadly, and as off the wall and out there as you can imagine it to be. Run a Paranoia-style fantasy RPG parody? Got you covered. Run a serious, deadly, classic Warhammer FRP meat grinder? We can do that too. Do a fantasy world like the Heavy Metal movie? Yeah, it works. Horror? It works. Conan? It works. You want to go more middle of the road?


It can do generic fantasy, but I feel the beauty of this games lies in the extremes. If I were to do a sort of B/X fantasy I may want to use Old School Essentials, Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, or other games where there is that safety net of expectations present - just for the players sake. You know, the class options, the what can happen in the world, the standard B/X style script of adventure and dungeon.

The B/X feeling.

This is like if satanic panic AD&D came along, ate Warhammer, went insane reading Rolemaster crit charts, got drunk with Tunnels and Trolls, destroyed several licensed properties along the way, had a kid with Cthulhu, and sat across the table wearing a vintage Van Halen 1980 concert t-shirt as your DM.

This is the Pathfinder I always dreamed of playing. Just anything goes crazy and free, deadly, with corruption and incredible feats and failures happening on a regular basis. With a lot less rules. I bring up Pathfinder because I had to buy three shelves of books to get it to that gonzo-crazy point, and I only use about 10% of the pile of books on my shelves I have to get it there.

Everything is Unique

One thing I love about the design language here is everything is unique. There is no real standard list of monsters and magic items. This is like that wonderful time for us when the D&D 4th Edition game only had a player's handbook and DMG and the monster manual came out months later. We had fun. The game was ours. We could make up any monster using the guidelines given, even space aliens, mirror a couple character powers, and we were playing a unique, crazy, and incredibly fun game that was ours.

And then the books started coming out for 4th Edition and ruining things for us slowly.

But DCC recaptures that. They constantly tell you to change things, make up your own monster stats, and use the book's creatures as starting points. None of this is written in stone. They purposefully don't give stats for a large number of the "fantasy standards" because they want you to make your own and make them yours.

Make a eyeball on a foot monster, give it a touch save poison effect, a few HD, a good AC, some attacks, a few special abilities and defenses, a d6 power chart, some save numbers, an initiative number, and go. This is probably the only one of these in the world so it doesn't really matter if the PCs kill it and your forget the stats, or it kills the PCs and you forget the stats.

The magic items are similarly unique. Every time a wizard learns a spell it is unique. If you can figure out a way to use a chart of random tables and make something else unique, it is unique. All the better.

Nobody knows what to expect.

Remember when I said "that B/X feeling?" To me, B/X is sort of like classic rock these days. Oh, I love my classic rock to hell and back, just like I love my B/X. But for some players they may come for that B/X feeling and not want all this potential insanity flying around. Spells corrupting their casters. Spells misfiring horribly. Monsters and treasures they can't predict. Character power that swings wildly. Nothing is known or can be predicted. Death could be through that next door.

Like the incredible Mork Borg, this is a game that shocks our senses and slaps us in our face, screaming at us to wake the heck up from our nostalgia-induced sleep.

With pen-and-paper games pretending to be lifestyle brands and MMOs, and character protection built in as a player retention strategy, I feel this is a good thing. B/X still is incredible, but there are times I want to break free, like the Queen song goes.

Change is good. Like a great horror movie, I don't want my feelings protected and I want to feel fear again. I need to feel alive.

We need that fear of the unknown in our gaming and that sense of wonder back.

Lots of Dice

I bought a standard set of Zocchi dice and I use these to play. Before I had a bucket and could never find the one I needed. Make sure yours all match in style, and cut down the number you play with to one or two sets so you can learn them. Don't do what I did and buy two types of d14 and d16 and never be able to find the right one. Buy different colors and make sure the d16 is unique. Trust me on this, it makes the game a lot easier to learn and you start being able to recognize the dice faster.

One Book

Another thing I love is you only need one book to play. You can buy modules and expansion, mutate them to your liking, but part of the game's philosophy is to give you the base DNA for your game, and you take it from there. There won't be dozens of expansion books for this game. You can go out into the community for that and go crazy if you want new material. But to keep that "the game is yours" feeling, they stuck with the core book and tell you to make up the rest.

Where Does This Fit In?

For me, this is my gonzo Pathfinder 1e replacement. It is a lot easier to learn and play correctly, the power levels are there, and it checks all the boxes for a wild and unpredictable game with corruption, dark powers, and insane monsters and worlds. I still play Pathfinder 1e, but this does what I wanted that game to do much easier.

I am sad I did not pull this out earlier and give it a go.


Lesson learned.

A great game and now one of my go-to games for the gonzo genre.

The +3 Modifier at 18


One of the reasons I avoided playing Swords & Wizardry for the longest time as the lack of a ability score modifier of higher than a +1 (at 15), and this modifier only applies to specific things for specific classes. For instance, the fighter is the ONLY class that gets a +1 to-hit and damage in melee with a strength score of 15 or higher.

Contrast this with the majority of B/X, which is based off of books later than the original "Chainmail" and white box style rules which did not have the 13-15 is +1, the 16-17 is +2, and the 18 is +3 modifiers (and the similarly decreasing negative ones). I grew up with these modifiers, so I thought if a game did not have these, it wasn't really good enough for me.

This is another reason I did not play Stars Without Number and the Worlds Without Number games, as I felt the +1 and +2 modifiers of these games did not feel up to my "standard" of needing that +3 at an 18.

Looking Back

I can see why the original games never had these generous ability score modifiers. They apply to every class, and scale to three times the original +1 modifier. When you have these modifiers, you are putting a huge upwards pressure on ability score inflation, and to get these "cool bonuses" the 4d6 drop lowest ability score generation method was likely created.

And with strength, you factor in a +1 essentially raises your weapon damage by one die, given the averages. A 1d4 dagger with a +1 STR mod is equal to a 1d6 weapon, since they have the same average  roll (3.5). A 1d4 dagger with a +3 modifier is like a 1d10 weapon. Note I am NOT taking into account the +5% extra to-hit bonus per +1, which would make a 1d4+1 dagger with a +1 to-hit superior to a 1d6 short sword with a +0 to-hit (3.675 vs 3.5 average damage). 

That d4+3 to-hit and damage? A 6.325 average damage versus the d10/+0 weapon's 5.5, almost a full point of damage more on average (factoring the to-hit bonus on repeated attacks), with a minimum nearly the average of the 1d10 weapon's at a full 4 points.

Those B/X modifiers are VERY generous, especially when combined with magic items. Get a +3 STR mod with a +2 weapon and you are doing serious damage with high averages.

Back to white box Swords & Wizardry. Basically, no real special modifiers unless you are a fighter with STR 15 or higher. That class gets it because that is why you play a fighter. Magic weapons? All classes benefit from to-hit and damage bonuses, and those modifiers become VERY valuable. As a consequence, magic items become highly desirable.

Also, the game feels better balanced because at low levels, ability score bonuses are not guaranteeing one hit kills versus many weaker monsters (especially 1d4 hp ones). Also, there isn't this great push to pump those ability scores up, and a 3d6 generation method feels fine here.

+2 at 18?

A few white box style games feel like they are making a compromise with a +2 at the highest scores (Stars Without Number, Worlds Without Number, and another one is White Space). Original Swords  & Wizardry sticks to the +1 all the way up. I can see this as a special nod to the need to have some difference there to make the upper range compelling, but it doesn't really bother me that much. Now that I understand the why, the exceptions can be a lot better rationalized.

It's What I Grew Up With

So I had this bias based on the games I grew up with, and that was coloring how I saw these games. Because Swords & Wizardry did not have the +3 bonus, it felt like less of a OSR game to me. And I will admit, I was wrong. There are times I feel those generous B/X ability score bonuses are too much, they put too much pressure on players to roll high, and they make the low level game with high scores more of a blowout than something with a predictable balance and less-spiky damage rolls.

I see why the "white box" lineage is popular, and this is one of those key differences. This is also one of the huge differences between B/X and the Stars/Worlds Without Number games, since they also pull down those modifiers and flatten that modifier curve.

I still like my +3 at 18, but I can see how that puts a lot of pressure on ability score inflation and makes low-level/high-modifier games easier. There is less "ability score swing" with games, and when you design a class you get to say what that 15+ score +1 goes to. Saving throws? Attack and damage? Reaction rolls? There is a model here that is followed and a standard practice.

So this is more of how I came to understand the "why" of white box style games' modifier system, and how those games don't feel like they have a problem to me anymore. They exist in a flatter design curve, and given how more games are moving towards that model (such as D&D5's bounded accuracy model, and also the excellent Stars/Worlds Without Number), the original white box rules we all started with feels more like the ultimate design goal rather than a system without that +3 modifier ideal.

It is honestly making me wonder what the "true" OSR style game is to me and that tighter balance curve. Is it B/X with the higher range of modifiers and stacking bonuses? Or is it more of a Swords and Wizardry style game with less of a focus on ability scores and more on play style, strategy, and tactics?

What is the idea OSR balance level, especially with low-level play?

Once you make a point that ability score modifiers are very generous in B/X (and create that ability score inflation), are very powerful at low levels, and compare that with a flatter model game like white box, you wonder where the game plays and feels the best.

I am really wondering now if the white box model has the best feeling versus the B/X games I grew up with. It may not matter at all, but I can clearly see the white box fans' view now on how less is more.