Wednesday, July 25, 2012

[Gaming] Dungeon Crawl Classics Play Session Report



I was one of the earlier gamers to preorder the Dungeon Crawl Classics roleplaying game.  The entire premise of a role playing game that captured the feel of Appendix N source material without being a retro clone of older rules sets appealed to me.  When my copies -- one regular and one limited -- arrived, I immediately set about the task of reading the rules.  They were clear and captured the feel of the game play I enjoyed as a younger gamer. 

While it is true that DCC captures the feel of games of past generations, it is also true that they are quite innovative.  The game's use of a dice chain to represent the affects of bonuses and penalties is fun in theory and in practice.  It's spell system for Wizards and Clerics, as well as its "Mighty Deeds" system for Fighters, are exciting.  For the first time in a d20 based RPG there is a solid spell duel system that manages to incorporate the normal magic rules while feeling like the magic of fiction.  The ability to invoke patrons, and the mercurial nature of spells add a nice spice to the overall system.  I think that this is a very strong game, and want to play it more and more...

I was very excited to play and began the campaign to convince my players to give the game a try.   This last weekend, I finally got that opportunity.  The only thing missing was a "thematic" ally in keeping the game's tone on target...ah Nick...how we needed you.

What follows in this blog post isn't a glowing example of joy, instead it's a demonstration of how a well written game can lead to a less than fun time.  This is even when the players knew pretty well what to expect. 

I told my regular players to be prepared for a possible TPK, and that they shouldn't get attached to their characters.  I also told them that they would have to make 4 characters each due to the high lethality of the adventure. Four of the players rolled their characters up in person, and one used the online character generator.  It was an interesting band of characters  made up of farmers, jewelers, glovemakers, and coopers.  Most of them were human, but there were a couple of Dwarves and a Halfling.  On the "attribute" side, and interesting thing happened.  Every player had one character who was significantly above average.  Not with multiple "18s," but with a couple of 16s an no bad attributes.  I could tell right away that the players had begun to build an attachment to their more competent characters.  One player went so far as to call his extraordinary cooper Lord "Spivak" and created a back story that the other 3 characters were accompanying this self-important barrel and chest maker on an adventure.

As an aside, Spivak wasn't his name.  I have forgotten the specific name at the time of this writing, but it should be noted that the player had already become attached to the character and that attachment was only set to grow.

At the beginning of the adventure, I warned the players that this would be a lethal adventure and that their characters would likely die.  They each looked at their characters and began to sort them out as fodder and potential hero in their mind.  Fodder would open doors and heroes would be cautious in the hopes of becoming 1st level characters -- who have a significantly higher chance to stay alive than these beginning characters.

The party heard of a mystic gate that opened between the stones of a neolithic structure when the stars were right...and the stars were right tonight.  They journeyed to the top of a hill that contained the structure in question, only to see the mysterious constellation above them and a mystic gate between worlds before them.

The players were quite impressive in their caution and use of reason and restraint.  They solved the riddle of the constellation, and lost no party members trying to enter the complex.  The next room went as they planned.  They had fodder risk the danger, and the heroes followed behind.  They also came up with and interesting solution to the third room's dangerous trap.  Through an ingenious application of levers, they were able to not only neutralize the trap but to almost turn it into a weapon against their foes.

This is where the fun begins, and where some of the characters began to shine.   You see, the party behaved in a highly efficient tactical manner and Lord Spivak's crowbar seemed to be the weapon that kept dealing the final blow.  He was a wonder to behold, as he split the skull of a giant demonic serpent.  Also a wonder to behold was the Halfling Glovemaker who used all of his small but "unhuman" strength to hold a door closed long enough to create a plan to deal with the dangers behind the door.

After three major combats, a couple of defeated traps, the now smaller party encountered what would be their last fight.  Their foes weren't particularly impressive.  In fact, even with the low hit points starting characters begin with it was likely that a blow from one of these foes would be non-lethal.  When one struck Lord Spivak, I wasn't too worried.  He had a good chance of survival.  Sadly, he was struck down.  I could see the disappointment in the player.  This was his noble character, far better than his surviving character Friar Sloth (actual name) a character with stats suited to becoming a Cleric.  It was almost as upsetting for me as it was for the player.  The heroism of the character, and his great story were darkened by one quick roll of the die.  It was a truly chaotic situation, and a disappointing one for the player.

This was something that I hadn't prepared the group for.  I had prepared them to have a group of characters who were all extremely incompetent.  I hadn't prepared them for the whimsical and almost meaningless loss of a valiant one.  I don't know that my group will want to return to the world of DCC, though I certainly do.  The death of Lord Spivak is one of the best gaming moments I can remember for some time -- as was the amazing bravery of the "unhumanly" strong Halfling Glovemaker.  We even started having quick in jokes, like how all Jewelers start with a 20gp gem we like to call Leather Armor.

While this was a problem with my group, it isn't something that the designers of the game didn't predict.  They have even provided advice for groups to help players get in the mindset.  I'd prepared the group for some character loss, but I couldn't prepare them for the loss of characters who had been so awesome in the past 3 encounters.  In addition to the potential for lethality, I should have warned them to Embrace the Chaos.
Embrace the Chaos
The DCC RPG is unpredictable. Really unpredictable. One moment, the PCs are losing a battle against a Rat God and thousands of his furry minions, and the next, the dwarf has won a strength check against the god, ripped free his bejeweled scepter of death and is hammering that Rat God back through time and space to whatever pit that spawned him.

And the opposite happens as well: When that glorious natural 1 rolls up, the entire table howls with agony, and you get the chance to add another notch in your judge-screen.

It isn’t pretty. It isn’t predictable. But it is a fundamental feature of the game. No battle is truly lost until the last PC gives up, and death is never more than a heartbeat away. With judicious use of Luck, spellburn and piety, the PCs can turn the odds in their favors. But stare too long into the abyss, and at some point the abyss will look back.

Image by Jody Lindke
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