Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #14 - Quattro con Carnage - Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (a look at gaming across systems)

This blog references the Quattro con Carnage experiment being run by +James Walls and specifically the third and fourth sessions featuring the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG segment, and my prior blog post discussing my thoughts on Basic Fantasy RPG.

This past week we completed session four of eight planned sessions (or four of ten if you wish to count the two session Dragon AGE expansion I will be running).  It was the second and final session with Dungeon Crawl Classics, an RPG which feels surprisingly modern in a lot of great ways even as it embraces (and occasionally wallows) in old school style.

I said previously how this experiment was my first experience with "OSR" rules since they were just "rules" about twenty years ago. Much like I had not played (or heard of) Basic Fantasy before this, I had not been exposed to Dungeon Crawl Classics. Coming to this RPG via this experiment was in some ways the ideal infection vector. Basic Fantasy was so stripped down and, well, basic, that it chaffed in a lot of ways due to its lack of certain aspects of game play that I prefer.

By comparison DCC felt like a breath of fresh air. Characters felt far more capable (I say felt because actual play did not always support this, more on that later though), with more usable abilities, and characteristics that lent themselves to more interesting options during play. At the same time the characters definitely felt grounded in the realm of pants-wetting mortality that BFRPG had, and I suspect is part of what some people like about OSR play. Likewise certain bits of DCC are most certainly rooted in tradition and not always a good way.

Our characters went from 3rd level to 2nd due in part of the level scaling of DCC vs BFRPG. My character, Lommán the cleric, retained similar stats, AC, and health, and so the change was more about his ability with combat and clerical power. Insofar as combat went I didn't notice a huge change; going from a +2 to hit to a +1 was what I would consider a negligible alteration given my character stats and his role in the party. On the other hand, going from a limited number of spells per day, including healing, to an at-will system balanced by a system of deity/sponsor disapproval altered Lommán's during-play feel immensely. From the get-go I knew that, so long as I could roll well enough, I could heal my group as often as needed, and likewise had the option to cast my other clerical spells more frequently.

The dice had something to say about that however; something not very kind, but I'll get to that in a second.

Unlike the spells of BFRPG that just work (like so many other spell systems), you need to make a spell check for DCC.  Success is variable, with the better results on the check yielding more powerful end effects. Scraping by with a healing check gave 1 or 2 dice of healing, while scoring a massive success granted 3 or 4 dice, potentially restoring the target to full health with a single act of justice healing. Similarly, spells like Sanctuary and Protection from Evil give better bonuses or last longer with better check results.

But let's get back to those damned dice, shall we? Remember how I said that actual play did not reflect how things looked on paper? Recall my comment about the dice having something rather unkind to say on the matter of our characters?

Over the course of two sessions Lommán proved fairly capable with healing hands (I think he only failed to heal twice), but his lord God Ogmios clearly felt that the cleric needed to rely on his own talents as much as his divinely given powers. When you need a 12+ to succeed with a spell and you have a +4 to that check you think "oh, an 8 is easy enough to roll, that's like 65% success rate" but when you tend heavily to roll 4's that doesn't work out so well.  Lommán was only successfully in casting two non-healing spells over the two sessions, and soon was worried that Ogmios would refuse any magic that was not used in conjunction with a personal sacrifice.  On the bright side it did lead the cleric to enter a room with known active traps to "take one (or three) for the team" under some holy protection.

The dice were not exclusively unkind to my character either. Our group's warrior, played by +Jeremy Land, had a pretty memorable stretch of poor dice rolling summed up best by the following quote:
Jim - "Has he ever hit anything?"
Jeremy - "Once… he killed a rat…" 
Despite rolling 1d20+1d4+2 for his attacks Umbrin simply accrued a truly epic string of failed dice rolls. This isn't a negative to the system of course, but it certainly makes it harder to assess just what a DCC warrior would play like. As an observer I can only feel bad for Jeremy's luck and hope that things go better in future sessions. Alternately maybe the rest of us can convince Jeremy to destroy those dice, if not for his benefit then for our own!

Back to the bad things for Lommán however. The flip side to divine magic is that each failed attempt also incurs disapproval from your god. The more disapproval you have the higher your chance for getting a divine wrist slap, or even a divine bitch slap, in for the form of an increasingly wide range of roll results that will incur a little retribution. You always suffer disapproval retribution on a "1" but each failed spell or ability check adds to the range going from "1" to "1-2", and so forth.

Naturally on his first attempt of the 2nd session Lommán rolled a "1". He was forced to roll on a table to find out the effects of his punishment, but luckily my penance was easy; Lommán just had to convert a new follower for Ogmios' church. Thankfully there were four level 0 characters nearby and a natural 20 later not only had he done just that, but his conversion roll was a "20" and Ogmios even forgave Lommán's earlier trespass and removed a point of disapproval.

I would be remiss to point out that the party's elf (since elf is a class in DCC, one of those times when DCC wallows in OSR in my opinion) had the opposite luck with spells. Magic Missile can become a deadly rain of destruction with a high enough check result and between good dice rolls and judicious use of spell burn there were some spectacular fireworks.  Spell burn is another not very OSR mechanic that really looked cool and fun. Basically it allows for the spell caster (I think it is only usable by arcane casters) to take ability score damage in trade for additional power/bonuses for their spell checks. You get weird results when you do it, and the scars and facial ticks of the party's elf certainly added additional dimension to that character in only two sessions, making me wonder how things would look over a full campaign.

We also saw the preferred method of new character introduction in DCC in our second session, with an new player coming to the table with four level 0 commoners. As expected not all of them survived the entire session, with only a single character standing at the end of the evening. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it was the dwarf blacksmith who earlier in the evening had converted to worship of Ogmios who survived, showing that indeed the God of Justice was watching out for his followers.  That or maybe +Andreas Walters just got lucky with his rolls.

All is not perfect in the pages of DCC. Being a demi-human is a class, which makes me concerned that all such characters will end up with a certain sameyness. You can't play a halfling rogue or a elven cleric for instance, which is a real shame, and an aspect of game design that holds the game back. Meanwhile while certain buff spells seem weak to the point of uselessness (+1 for a single round, seriously?) at their lowest level of success. These really stand out to me as an unnecessary holdover from the "old school days"; a +1 bonus maybe wasn't so powerful when there was no risk to the caster for using the spell (aside from the risk of preparing a crappy spell).

At the end of the evening, and the end of our time with DCC, I felt pretty good about these two sessions. Where Basic Fantasy had reminded me about much of what I did not enjoy about my AD&D experiences in high school, Dungeon Crawl Classics felt like a game that balanced rewards and punishments with equal measure (dice not withstanding), and genuinely felt fun.

I don't know that I would ever look to play BFRPG again, but I would certainly be willing to play in more sessions of DCC as I feel that we only touched the tip of the iceberg of that game's potential. Is it the best RPG for OSR style fantasy? I dunno, two sessions isn't enough to make a real judgement, and personal taste for certain factors will also contribute to your like or dislike, but for short and medium term play I can get behind it.