The Zen Game Master

Meditations on the games I play and the things I geek.

Zen Impressions – Dungeon Crawl Classics

What is Dungeon Crawl Classics?

Dungeon Crawl Classics is a roleplaying game that describes itself as “a complete role playing game of 1970s Appendix N fantasy.” Hold on, hold on. To some folks, I know that makes complete sense but a lot of you are scratching your heads right now and wondering, “What the heck does that mean?” That is a fair question, so let me explain further.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), Gary Gygax included a list of “Inspirational and Educational Reading.” This list, annotated as Appendix N at the back of the book, included many of the works Gary considered of “particular inspiration” when creating Dungeons and Dragons. It included such literary luminaries as Edgar Rice Burroughs, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and many others. Appendix N encapsolated the very definition of “What is Dungeons & Dragons?” Thus, the legend of Appendix N was born and lives on to this day, inspiring generations of readers, gamers, and game designers.

Dungeon Crawl Classics, published by Goodman Games in 2012, took a streamlined version of Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition and mixed it with a heavy dose of Appendix N goodness. The end result is a game focused on the great parts of early gaming with D&D while benefitting from the advances in modern game design. To say the game has been an enormous success is an understatement. Hundreds of products have been released not only by Goodman Games but also numerous third party publishers. DCC tournaments and events can be found at almost every convention. One can hardly begin exploring tabletop roleplaying games without finding some mention of the game.

Personally, I have been deep in playing Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, Pathfinder, and Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition since DCC appeared on the scene. I really did not need another “fantasy RPG” so I shied away from it despite being constantly tempted by the old school art and the din of the DCC crowd enjoying themselves at every convention. Man, those extra dice DCC uses were also a mighty temptation to this dice collector.

While traveling through Central Georgia a few years ago, I found a copy of the DCC core rulebook marked down to $10. The book was well loved by its previous owner (thus, the low cost) and always curious about game systems, the decision to grab it was an easy one. I leafed through the book a bit, marvelled at how much of the book was actually just the spell section, the art was amazing and nostalgic, and the it reminded me of my days playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons with my siblings and friends. However, I was still deeply committed to other ongoing fantasy campaigns, so the book went on my shelf and sat there for quite some time.

Fast forward to late 2020/early 2021 and due to no fault of the games I am playing, I find myself suffering a bit of burnout. That is a topic for another article but while discussing the situation with the Gaming & BS community, many suggested trying other games. Make big changes to shake things up and I felt like that was really solid advice. So I grabbed a myriad of old favorites from my bookshelf, purchased a few recommendations from various places, and also pulled some games from my shelf I had not played, including Dungeon Crawl Classics. I dove into each with the mindset of looking for something new. Low and behold, Dungeon Crawl Classics spoke to me.

I loved the dice, the art, and the old school feel of the game. I knew this before but something was different this time. More than anything, I loved that it abandoned some of the constructs that have become common place in a lot of modern games, especially fantasy ones. In DCC, the player is as much a part of the character as the character. I’ll say more about that below. What was old was new again, so to speak.

I jumped online to learn more and quickly discovered Spawn of Cyclops Con was coming up, so I took the leap. I got a badge and signed up for my first game of Dungeon Crawl Classics, a funnel to be specific. For those unfamiliar, a funnel is a fun romp through a dungeon with a whole mess of level 0 characters. Players often play more than one character because carnage will ensue. The lucky few who survive may have the chance to become level 1 adventurers. Not every campaign needs to start with a funnel but the game designers recommended it, at least for new players, and I thought it was a fun idea.

So how did the actual game go at the table?

Put simply, I had a great time. I did need to adjust a bit as I fully realized not everything I could accomplish would not necessarily be found on my character sheet. I also found I spent more time thinking about who these characters were and what they would do as we began playing. I was seriously getting into roleplaying my stable of characters, maybe more than I would have with a single character in other games. In the past, I had vehemently denied 4E/5E/Pathfinder took away from roleplaying, but having visited the other side of the fence… Well, let’s just say I now understand what people were trying to say, even if they didn’t communicate their meaning or intent very well (and often, in an adversarial tone… funny how that detracts from one’s message, ya know?).

For the record, I played in “Sailors on the Starless Sea.” Trust me, most fans of DCC are nodding their heads in approval right now. Without spoiling anything, our level 0 characters were a mob on our way to rescue villagers who had been taken by raiders, probably because there were no level 1 adventurers around to handle the job. Not that any would have taken up the cause because as the game says, “You are no hero.” In DCC you’re seeking gold and glory using steel and spell! Leave that hero crud for the birds.

Sailors on the Starless Sea by Harley Stroh

The game was challenging especially considering we were trying to accomplish a goal while fearing for our lives. We’re just villagers ourselves after all! I remember thinking about what might have been a bland encounter in D&D 5E took on all sorts of new interesting aspects while we played. I quickly connected, even as my randomly generated villagers fell to [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]. Without trying to wax too poetically, it was magical in a nostalgic kind of way. I had missed that kind of play more than I realized.

The game master totally wiped us by the way. Yep, it was a Total Party Kill, or TPK. One by one, our characters fell to the horde of [REDACTED] as we tried to reach our fellow villagers, explored the adventure locale, and hunted for treasure. We never finished Sailors on the Starless Sea, but that is okay. I intend to play it again. Hell, I am planning to run it myself at this point. I purchased the PDF and a print copy is in route already. Man, I haven’t even played an adventurer yet. I have cast no spells, healed no allies, and performed no mighty deeds! I think its mandatory I play again.

So what is my “zen impression” of Dungeon Crawl Classics?

Dungeon Crawl Classics was created with a lofty goal in mind and I absolutely believe they accomplished that goal. By the time we finished the game, I knew why this game had become so popular and continues to grow. Its an immense amount of fun to play and there is a lot more to explore. I’ve got more to write on this topic but I need more experience (as a DCC player and gamemaster) before I commit those words to blog.

DCC hits a sweetspot and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy roleplaying games. Whether you stick with the game or not, I think you will not forget the experience and you’ll create some fond memories along the way.

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