If you’ve kept even a cursory eye on d20 products since the OGL came out, you will have heard of Goodman Games, and probably of their Dungeon Crawl Classics line of adventures.
This is the free public beta of Goodman’s own D&D retroclone, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, and is a 160 page PDF download published in 2011, intended as a teaser and stress test for the full game. It allows you to create characters, and advance them up to 5th level. You can still find it on Goodman Games’ website.
Introduction (2 pages excluding pictures)
As well as the usual credits, this has a page explaining what the author assumes about your knowledge of, and intentions regarding, roleplaying. In particular, it’s assumed that you are moving to the DCC RPG from one of the earlier versions of D&D, whether that be Original, B/X, or 1st Edition flavour.
The Core Mechanic (one page)
This is a handy page, explaining both the core rules mechanic (roll 1d20, apply modifiers, and if it equals or exceeds a target number, you succeed) and differences between the DCC RPG and other incarnations of D&D.
It also warns you that the DCC RPG makes use of "funky dice", namely things like d7, d24 and so on. These are less common than the standard d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12, but can be emulated with those – and since you are assumed to be a D&D player, you already have them.
Chapter 1: Characters (41 pages)
The DCC RPG starts with an unusual approach: Each player generates 2-4 0-level characters completely at random, even unto their occupation and beginning possessions. (In no other game I know can you begin as a gongfarmer whose sole possessions are a trowel and a sack of night soil. No wonder you start adventuring.)
The bunch of them now enter their first dungeon, where most of them will assuredly die. Any survivors who earn at least one experience point are then promoted to 1st level, and may choose a character class; this is harder than it sounds, as you start with -100 experience.
To an extent, this is similar to Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, in that the player’s input into the character is very limited to start with; more options appear later, but the PC is forever tainted, or blessed, with features of his origin. This is undoubtedly realistic – none of us had much choice about our health or birth parents – but I’m not sure how much fun it would be for my group and I.
Ability scores are slightly non-standard: Strength, Agility (replaces Dexterity), Stamina (replaces Constitution), Personality (replaces Wisdom and Charisma), Intelligence, and Luck, with attribute modifiers following the B/X model of no more than -3 or +3. Unusually, the bonus from your Luck score applies to a completely random activity determined from a Luck Table; it may well be something you can’t even do, because your character class rules it out. The three saving throws of D&D 3rd Edition are in force; Fortitude, Reflex and Will. Alignment is the original Law-Neutrality-Chaos model.
Character classes, at least in the Beta rules, are warrior, cleric, wizard, thief, dwarf, elf and halfling – yes, race as a class is alive and well. Dwarves are basically another type of warrior, elves are fighter/magic-users, and halflings are notoriously lucky rogues.
Each class is described over the course of a handful of pages, but like Joe Goodman, I’m assuming you have a passing familiarity with those concepts already, so I won’t dwell on the details. Something that is a bit out of the ordinary is that each combination of class, level and alignment has its own title or rank name; I’ve never used these myself, and wouldn’t start now, but there they are.
Note that unlike traditional D&D, casting a spell requires a successful "skill check" of some kind. Clerical magic is powered by the gods, while wizardly magic is fuelled by pacts with demons, elder gods, angels or some other supernatural being not part of the pantheon of deities. In either case, one’s patron spirit can be offended; as you’ll see later, magic in this system is unpredictable and dangerous compared to D&D spellcasting.
Also of interest are Mighty Deeds of Arms, which make warriors more interesting than in the base game; if successful, these allow the fighter to add colour to an attack – it might smash a demon’s goat horns, for example, or push a foe back into a wall, or sever the hangman’s rope in time to save a comrade. Thus, these are similar to Combat Manoeuvres in Pathfinder. though perhaps with more scope for dramatic licence. I’ve seen GMs doing this for decades, but mostly in an informal way, not codified in the rules.
Chapter 2: Skills (3 pages)
As well as whatever his class dictates, your PC also knows the skills appropriate to his former occupation; it is these he can use in non-combat situations, so this section is fairly short. A former blacksmith can make a skill check using the Core Mechanic to forge a weapon, a former scribe can make a check to translate an old book, and so on.
I’m not sure what my hypothetical gongfarmer could do with a skill check, but probably nothing nice.
Oh, you can also make checks to do things like climb, break down doors and so on. Those are handled by ability checks.
Chapter 3: Equipment (5 pages)
As you probably know by now if you’re a regular ready, equipment sections don’t do anything for me, and I tend to skip gaily past them in search of something that interests me more. Suffice to say that if you’re familiar with any form of D&D prior to AD&D 2nd Edition, you already know what’s in here; armour, weapons, thieves’ tools and holy symbols, among others.
Chapter 4: Combat (29 pages)
This is standard d20 fare, for the most part. Surprise, initiative, one or more actions per round depending on class and level, roll a die and match or beat the target’s Armour Class to hit, roll weapon damage dice to wound, die at 0 hit points. What is new is that on the second and subsequent actions, PCs could be rolling a d16 to hit instead of a d20.
A natural 1 is always a fumble, and a natural 20 is always a critical hit; in either case you roll on the appropriate table to see what happens. The type of die you roll on the table varies with circumstances; when fumbling, you roll d8 if in full plate, up to d16 if unarmoured. When rolling for criticals, both the table and the die type used depend on class and level. In all cases, lower scores get you worse results, so there is a definite advantage in rolling dice with more sides.
Next we get some more detailed examples of Mighty Deeds of Arms; blinding, pushbacks, trips, throws, rallying, defensive fighting.
Damage and healing follow, again in the usual manner for 2d0 games.
Burning Luck is another interesting innovation. Characters can permanently sacrifice points of their Luck characteristic for a one-time bonus on a roll; you can make the roll first, so you know how much you have to burn. When a player says "My luck’s running out," in this game, he means it literally.
Finally, there is a special-purpose combat subsystem to cover duels between wizards or clerics, fought with spells. This can happen outside the normal initiative order. Casters can counter one spell with another, building momentum which is tracked by means of a die until one is dominant. More tables explain the impact of the counterspells, and the effect of disturbing the mana around the casters. This subsystem is 6 pages long, and is more complex than I’d want to use myself.
Chapter 5: Magic (47 pages)
My normal rule is that whatever gets the most page count is what the game focuses on; this may not be true for the DCC RPG, since as you’ll see each spell requires at least a page to describe. It’s fair to say, though, that the game’s approach to magic is what sets it apart from other retroclones.
Casting effectively requires a skill check, as noted above. Casters can burn ability scores to get bonuses on casting; with the exception of Luck, these "spellburned" points return as the caster heals. As well as a mechanical effect, these have in-game consequences for the character; spellburning might require him to cut off a finger, for example, or pledge his soul to a demon. As you might expect by now, there’s a table for that.
One of the core themes of the game is that magic manifests itself differently at different times and for different casters. The Mercurial Magic table is invoked each time a character learns a new spell, and reveals how that caster can use that spell – the effect may be good (e.g., can cast in complete silence) or bad (e.g., caster devolves into a subhuman for 1d4 rounds).
Fumbling (natural 1) on a spell check triggers a roll on the Corruption table if a wizard, or the Disapproval table if a cleric. Corruption can result in anything from growing a giant scorpion’s tail to your flesh falling off in lumps to your nearest ally being partially turned into a cow to even less desirable consequences. Disapproval is less severe, generally just limiting clerical abilities.
The defining feature of the system, however, is that each spell has a full page devoted to it. This has not only the usual data like spell level, range, duration and so forth, but also variable effects depending on how well your spellcasting check roll went. Again, we see the core theme that magic is unpredictable; a character casting a spell can never be quite certain what the effect will be, or how many people it will affect, although the higher his character level, the better he is likely to do.
The Beta version of the rules includes about 30 spells, all first level ones.
Chapter 6: Judge’s Rules (9 pages)
This chapter starts with more detail on wizard’s spells; general principles, available patrons and how wizards deal with them, and the entertaining rules for "patron taint"; each time a wizard casts a spell, he grows more likely to manifest some aspect of his patron, and eventually will acquire all manner of taints. The example patron given is a toad demon, and over time his wizards will come to look and smell like toads, drip moisture, and be surrounded by small toads and flies. In exchange, the patron grants access to spells not otherwise available, for example turning into a giant tadpole. Patrons also have their own unique ways of interpreting spellburn. Choose your patron wisely.
Chapter 7: Monsters (9 pages)
The DCC RPG aims to have no generic monsters; while any given monster may be of a recognisable type, their statblocks vary from region to region. However, the Beta rules provide some 16 familiar standbys as sword-fodder for trial games, including favourites like orcs and skeletons.
The file closes with character sheets, the OGL, and some adverts for other products in the line. Nothing unusual there.
Text layout is fairly basic, plain black and white in two columns with the occasional drop caps, and I like it that way. It’s easy to read and easy to print.
Artwork is black and white, apart from the colour cover, with roughly one illustration per page, and frequent full-page pictures. The style is reminiscent of the pictures in AD&D 1st Edition or 1980s issues of Dragon magazine, and ranges from cartoons to more serious pieces.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
I have quite a few, actually, mostly about the reliance on tables – which reminded me a lot of Rolemaster. However, I shan’t go into them, because once you start messing with the tables, the DCC RPG is no longer itself; they are integral to the philosophy of knowing less and predicting less.
Most retroclones are very similar in look and feel, but the DCC RPG drives off at some speed down a tangent, a road where the players have much less knowledge about, and control over, what happens than usual. Depending on the group, this could either be very frustrating, or refreshingly different.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5. It’s got some cool ideas, and I like the unpredictable effects of combat, spells and monsters; but I don’t like the complexity that entails, and it doesn’t grab me enough to lure me away from my current favourites.
Here we see one of the key aspects of free-to-download quick start rules; reduced risk to the customer. I now know the DCC RPG isn’t my cup of tea, and all it has cost me is a couple of hours enjoyably browsing through the Beta rules.