Dungeon Crawl Classics: A Funnel of a Good Game

January the 26th is known in Australia by many names.  Officially it is Australia Day signified by the day the first settlers landed in Sydney Harbour.  The Indigenous population call it “Invasion Day” for the same reason.  The young and trendy know it as Triple J’s Hottest 100 Countdawn day.  To me, I call it a birthday, hence it is the day that forty one years ago I emerged screaming into this world.  I try to make it into a celebration of games day or a mini con – Let us call it Knights Con.  This year was no different and we hit up two games – one was the board game “King of Tokyo” which was awesome and I finally made a debut in running and playing Dungeon Crawl Classics, an RPG  by Goodman Games.

Dungeon Crawl Classics
My games from Knights Con A.K.A my birthday

I know that I am late on the band wagon with this.  There are a lot of the people around me in internet-landia that talk about Dungeon Crawl Classics and how fun it is.  I bought the PDF an age ago because it was on special and had a cursory glance over it but never much else.  Then as my birthday approached my wife wanted me to come up with a wish list so I put it out to the Google Plus people what I should get in regards to a lush hard back RPG to read.  Dungeon Crawl Classics was a very popular suggestion and it rekindled my interest.

I started to read the PDF again and it got under my skin.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am going back to basics by hand drawing maps and looking at what truly makes me happy in RPG’s (largely my own creations) that I am finally beginning to get Old School Rennaisance (OSR).  I even realised that I support two people by Patreon who are solidly in the OSR camp and to my surprise, one of the blogs is even mentioned as a source in DCC.  I have to face the fact that I am turning into a grognard.  A Grognard, as defined by urban dictionary is:

In D&D, a person who prefers an older edition to the newer one.
Gamer A:”After playing 4th edition for six months, our group decided to give it up and go back to 3.5.”
Gamer B:”you’re officially grognards now.”

To me the term is a little deeper though.  I feel that a Grognard is someone who is in search of what made them come to role playing, and that for me is now around 30 years ago.  That puts me right in the zone of the red box basic D&D, Traveller and a bunch of other really old games that were simple rules-wise and relied on a lot of discretion from the Games Master (GM).  Also, the fact that there were only a few supporting materials out there so you would generally not expect just to buy a campaign setting.

That is the heart and soul of Dungeon Crawl Classics.  My definition is one of the driving forces behind the game and so it is no surprise that I fell in love with it last night at Knights Con!  We started around 7 P.M. into Dungeon Crawl Classics with four players, one being my 10 year old son.  All of the players made four 0-level characters then and there and we ran the 0-level funnel adventure in the back of the rulebook entitled The Portal Under The Stars to completion and were finished by around 10:15.  What game could you do that in these days?

A lot of the appeal to Dungeon Crawl Classics for a lot of people come from the idea of a funnel.  This is not something that I grew up with but it is an excellent tool.  A funnel is the idea that the players build some characters (generally 3-5) that are completely random but also very basic with little to protect them.  These characters feel they are made of the right stuff and they enter an adventure where the likelihood is that most will die.  Once the adventure is over, they make it to Level 1 and gain a little skill, but with one of the characters that survived.  That means the player generally will take on a role with the character that the character statistics dictate, not what they dictate and build toward.

It is a great concept and I really saw how that dynamic of the funnel worked to build a truly unique role-playing experience.  Each of the players picked their favourites, which tended to be the ones with the best stats, at the start of the game and they were shaping their decisions around all the characters to protect that one.  Problem is, as the game progressed, they realised a lot of the traps and dangers that they were facing were picking them off at random largely.  There were triggers but largely the damage got dealt around with random goodness.  Then the strangest thing started to happen.  Each of the little potential characters started building up little personalities.

Sci-Fi RPG work
Officially a Grognard

I think there are a few reasons for this.  The players realised that pretty much any one hit is going to kill a character that at best (last night anyway) has around 5 hit points.  They saw my son’s ranks decimated through the first door and realised that things get random quickly.  They started to identify with the characters as well.  All weaklings, lured into a supernatural place by the rumour of great treasures.  They enjoyed their successes and really built the characters up.  The building of one in particular “Pierre the Filthy” went from a concept to a stinky Frenchman who was an excellent marksman (because he could hit a skull with a sling).

By the end of the night the game was done and dusted and I told them all that they get 10 XP each and can make a character from the survivors.  Something I was unprepared for was that of the four players, only one did not have a choice of character to make their actual player character.  My son did not lose another character after the first room, my daughter was incredibly lucky when it came to random character selection and the player of Pierre the Filthy, Scott Desmond managed to get two through.  Only Michael Tokarski was unfortunate enough to have only one character left at the end.

This funnel idea is a novelty in a lot of ways because it is really only an introduction to the game.  The game goes on to provide a long term gaming platform that is:

  1. simple;
  2. elegant;
  3. variable;
  4. scalable; and
  5. fun.

The funnel gives the players the idea of the nature of the game.  It is built for the feel of the 1974 style game where death was ever present and the pace was fast.  The rule set for continuing games is brilliant.  The way they turn magic into something that feels old-school, but in reality is a novel, excellent, variable new concept is brilliant.  I generally dislike spell casters in D&D clone games and could not see myself playing a character who at their heart is a pure caster.  That is completely different with Dungeon Crawl Classics and it is because of their approach to variability and rarity that makes me think that way.

We had a discussion after the game last night about where our actual regular game was going.  I recognised the fact that although I moan about D&D I was happy to continue it for them until they were ready to move on.  I also admitted that while I am known for my affection for Pathfinder that I would actually be just as, if not more than, happy to play Dungeon Crawl Classics longer term.  It just feels less limiting and more creative than the aforementioned games, and that reminds me of why I play these games.

The system is geared toward quick resolution and simple concepts.  They do not provide every rule for every circumstance.  They provide a guiding set of rules and expect that the judge (what the GM is called in Dungeon Crawl Classics) will come up with other rules or rulings on the fly.  This gives the players the room to role-play and explore the personality of their character as opposed to the rules they must follow to play the character.  Sure their are rules and guidelines, but compared to a crunchy game like Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics seems almost devoid of rules.

That topped by the physical book which had arrived last Thursday and I was unable to open it until my birthday on the Monday.  The book is huge.  You just get no sense of how truly thick this tome is until it is in your hand.  I saw a picture of the book itself sat next to the Pathfinder and the Numenera core books and it is thicker than them but I never truly got how big that was until I opened the present.  Plus I was expecting it to be heavy, but it isn’t.  It is really surprisingly light in comparison to those aforementioned books.

The interior of the book is black and white with old school art.  Tongue in cheek old school art a lot of the time actually which really suits this book.  There are a lot of little mini cartoons throughout that make you chuckle and are playfully having a go at the OSR itself.  The artwork is spot on and I know that because my wife just does not get it.  She mentioned my Pathfinder books when I showed her the art I was so excited about and I have to explain that this art is infinitely cooler because it is in the black and white ink style that I was so used to in my early years of gaming as a teenager.

I find it hard to communicate in words the exhilaration that I have when I play this game.  I play a lot of games.  I read a lot of games.  This game is truly special and I hope that the above has spoken to some of you at least about why it is so special.  Some of that “special” is intangible and I can’t put it into words.  If I were reviewing this game without having played it, a lot of the praise would be absent.  I was talking to Moe Tousignant recently about Dungeon World and he said he had read it but not played it and did not know what the fuss was about.  I had to say to him that you have to play it to understand it and that is equally true with Dungeon Crawl Classics.

So I am sorry to all of you who have been telling me for so long to give this a look.  Mea Culpa.  I have now and it truly is a special game.  Thank you Joseph Goodman and Goodman Games for making this product.  I think that in a lot of ways this is the book I have been looking for since third edition D&D hit the shelves and I just could not work out what my fantasy games were missing and why it all seemed to take so long and was so hard all of a sudden.  Until next time, keep rolling!

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