Brutal First Edition Flavor
“You’re no hero,” asserts the first page of character creation in Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games, “you’re an adventurer.” DCC promises a return to the classic flavor of first edition Dungeons & Dragons — brutal challenges, frequent death, and hordes of treasure. Politics and world settings and the machinations of NPCs take a backseat to fast and deadly combat and dungeon exploration. You may not be a hero in Dungeon Crawl Classics, but if you can survive you will find enough monsters and adventure to play the system for a very long time.
If you survive.
First published as a standalone ruleset in 2012, the DCC system is quickly approaching its ten-year anniversary, and while Goodman publishes a number of games and modules for a variety of systems — converting classic D&D modules to 5e as an example — new DCC content continues to pour out from both Goodman as well as third parties. The library of adventures available for this old school system is vast — particularly because older gamers and fans of the original Dungeons & Dragons rulesets have enthusiastically embraced DCC’s ode to sword and sorcery nostalgia. Newer players, however, who may only be familiar with fifth edition D&D will find a palate cleansing simplicity in DCC.
Dungeon Crawl Classics takes its influence from the very beginnings of Dungeons and Dragons. When Gary Gygax released the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979, it included a list of “Inspirational and Educational Reading” in the appendices in the back of the book. The list, labeled then and known now as simply “Appendix N”, featured the works of such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, R.E Howard of “Conan” fame, Jack Vance, J.R.R. Tolkien and other sword and sorcery legends. Creator of DCC, Joseph Goodman read every book on the list and used them as direct inspiration for his system, and they are largely responsible for the atmosphere of the game.
That atmosphere is what really sets DCC apart. When DCC RPG was first published in 2012, the old school renaissance was already in full swing. Numerous retro-clones existed — but it was DCC that first brought back the flavor of Appendix N.
Further cementing DCC’s relationship to the roots of D&D is its method of character creation. Utilizing a concept known as “the funnel”, players start their adventure completely unprepared for the challenges that await them. Instead of beginning the game as a lowly paladin or an inexperienced rogue, both still capable of feats beyond regular people, you begin the game as bakers, farmers, or even (as in our playtest) the peasant responsible for cleaning the contents of emptied chamber pots from the street. Heading into your first dungeon with nothing but the tools of your trade, a rolling pin wielded as a club, a pitchfork, or a sack of night soil, the chances of any individual’s survival are slim. To prepare for the inevitability of death, each player rolls a handful of level 0 characters leading to a sizable party of 15 or more at the first session. This does not last long. DCC focuses 100% on the dungeon crawl — secret doors, monsters and traps at every turn — and the monsters and traps will quickly begin whittling down the mob of peasants that first enter the dungeon. Whichever of your characters survives to tell the story of their first adventure will reach level 1, choose a class and become something more than their occupation.
The DCC book recommends utilizing a completely random method of character creation. A series of rolls determines ability scores, occupation and starting equipment. Fans of roguelike games will enjoy this method as the characters end up feeling organic, and their future classes are less determined by what sounds cool and instead are determined by what your character is good at. Fans of optimizing and min-maxing need not apply. Even when the randomness of creation gives you a super strong and hardy blacksmith, a perfect candidate to be an optimized warrior, there is every chance they will not make it through the first adventure. When we played there were several very high statted characters but they died just as easily as the more average individuals. In our experience this led to a very enjoyable game, where as more and more of the party died, players became more attached to the surviving members of their group. By the end it was surprising to which of the characters each player became most attached; some players had only a single character remaining by the end. As a DM it is great to watch the party slowly become more cautious as they run out of cannon fodder, becoming hard-pressed to risk the lives of their remaining characters.
The DCC system also uses a dice chain mechanic to augment the difficulty of rolls. Instead of merely increasing or decreasing the difficulty class of a challenge, DCC changes the dice you roll all the way from the three sided die to the mighty d30 at higher levels. This does mean that purchasing a set of “Zocchi dice” is a good idea, to obtain less common sided dice, however the book offers methods of using the standard dice set. We used standard dice for our play-through and found that it did not seem to take away from the experience much at all.
The DCC core book is over 500 pages of material, including all of the core rules, classes and spells, as well as a built in monster manual. The pages are filled with artwork in the style of classic fantasy illustrations from artists known for their work. Also included in the book are 2 adventures — a level 0 adventure or “funnel”, as well as a harder adventure for characters of 2nd level. In addition to this material are a myriad of tables and tips for Dungeon Masters that can be useful for inspiration no matter what RPG you decide to run. At a 40-to-60-dollar sticker price, the DCC core book offers a fairly cheap entry level to the system, being the only book required for play. Nevertheless, there are many adventures already in print for DCC that are arguably superior to the included ones, and which can keep you playing DCC for a long time.
Even after the first adventure, death is a constant threat in DCC. The mortality rate in the system is intentionally high. Reaching level 5, the midpoint in the level system, is a real accomplishment. For that reason, some players may be put off by the difficulty level. The system has been described as punishing and deservedly so. If you are a player who wants to reach max level and who grows overly attached to your characters, you may find the system does not offer the experience you crave. If you are a player who likes a good challenge and who enjoys the nail biting experience of death always looming, you will find plenty to enjoy. If you crave story and exposition and conversations with powerful NPC’s from the world, again DCC is not going to fulfill that experience. However, if what you are after is a solid dungeon crawl with quick paced action, high stakes, and a refreshing focus on combat and exploration, Dungeon Crawl Classics from Goodman Games offers exactly that. With a ton of published material and more coming out all the time, you will find an adventure you love, and I absolutely recommend you give it a try. “There are treasures to be won deep underneath, and you shall have them…”
— Curtis J. Allmon