Archive for January 26th, 2011


Uncomplicated Fun: Results from the D&D 3.5/DCC RPG Experiment

Those who’ve been patiently waiting for the follow-up to the first part of my playtest report on using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG to run adventures written for Castles & Crusades and AD&D will perhaps be mollified by a report from a different experiment. This weekend I ran a conversion of Michael Kortes’s “War of the Wielded” from Dungeon #149,  one of the last adventures Paizo published for D&D 3.5. Our heroes were:

  • Jed’s warrior Lom the Reaver, a mighty armsman who kept an enchanted pitchfork to remind him of his humble origins as an evil turnip farmer; he was accompanied by the zero-level henchmen Brother Pancreas, a cooper, and Ginger, a gypsy.
  • Eric’s cleric Theodorus, Arch-Druid of Cthulu, who returned from his successful adventure in the Castle of the Mad Archmage; his companions from that expedition, Sour Jack and Ganymede, were drained of levels to fill the role of  0-lvl henchmen and thus relied only on their respective training in gravedigging and peryton herding.
  • Paul’s wizard Mordegaunt the Necromancer, a former gambler who traded part of his soul to Amun Tor, god of mysteries and riddles, in exchange for a lucky draw of the cards, and his henchmen Goodwife Cump, guanaco herder, and Lucky Lorinck, astologer.
  • George’s wizard Orik the Elementalist, another evil turnip farmer risen to greatness in the black arts, bringing with him Otis, a farmer from their home village, and his brother Elmo, an ostler.

Note that these were turnip farmers who were evil, not farmers of evil turnips. This was a result of a series of random events – rolling for occupation (d100: farmer), with a sub-chart (d8: turnips),  plus the players’ decision to accept the random alignments I assigned their PCs. I told them being evil didn’t necessarily mean they were raised to eat babies and hate Mom and apple pie; as their characters started at 5th level maybe they had a stain on their souls from a previous adventure which they were now trying to redeem. (I feel the DCC RPG encourages a more fluid approach to alignment than is usual for D&D. There aren’t now-your-paladin-is-just-a-lame-fighter consequences to changing alignment; instead it can open up character options like the different level titles that distinguish lawful evil Mordegaunt from neutral evil Orik. This seems fitting for the game’s Appendix N inspirations, such as Elric’s foreswearing Chaos for Balance as a result of his experiences as he roams the world).  But given the remarkable coincidence of three PCs and henchmen being both evil and turnip farmers, the players decided yeah, actually these guys were from a village where they were raised to spit on Mom’s apple pie.

The “War of the Wielded” adventure is written for 5th level 3.5 characters, and details a conflict between two sets of intelligent weapons that were created to fight a war that everyone else has long forgotten but which the swords still secretly prosecute by dominating hapless wielders to act as their foot-soldiers.  It’s a terrific scenario, presented in a  linear format but offering lots of different ways to break it into chunks that players can approach separately. I started by asking what our heroes’ last adventure had been; they decided to riff off Mordegaunt’s connection to Amun Tor and told me they had come to the city of Sasserine, where the scenario is set, to seek the god’s favor by returning an idol they had stolen from one of his distant temples.

“Cool,” I said, “the priest offers you a riddle. He says there are three possible paths to redemption, but will not tell you which holds your salvation. Ghaultin Valk, a lieutenant in the Shadowshore Watch, seeks help with a murder investigation in exchange for his intervention on your behalf if you’re ever in trouble with the law. Larcos Dengrim is mounting an expedition to the Dungeon of Rust and Fire, and will give you full claim to all non-living treasure recovered from the depths. Finally, Featherwhisper seeks guards to protect her bathhouse from a rival, and is offering a year’s free room, board, and massage services.”

Perhaps predictably, Jed, Eric, Paul, and George chose the dungeon expedition, so the adventure was afoot. In the following notes, I’ll describe what it was like to use DCCRPG to run an adventure I originally played for 3.5 back in the day. Let me make the same respectful disclaimer that I would in talking about my first wife: I still love 3E D&D and we had many great years together. In identifying specific ways that the DCC RPG suits me better nowadays, I don’t mean to slag 3E or people who are still happy with it or its direct descendants. There are many things I think 3E is better at, like having an enormous pool of mechanical bits that are tightly defined but produce unexpected complex interactions and can be used to create things like monsters in great detail so that they feel like something rigorous and real. It’s just that these are not the advantages I’m currently looking for; this playtest let me experience some of the ones I am.

In the original adventure, Larcos Dengrim had been a paladin who fell from grace as a result of being used by each faction of intelligent weapons to serve their venal ends. After winning free of their control, he became a holy liberator (a 3E prestige class that’s like a chaotic paladin, devoted to stamping out bondage). As with so many other things, this 3Eism harkens back to AD&D’s alignment restrictions and single-purpose Dragon Magazine classes like the anti-paladin. I wanted to go with DCC RPG’s more wide-open and OD&D-like approach, where the warrior or fighting-man class can be interpreted as a soldier of the gods, a wilderness scout, or a pit-fighting gladiator as the player sees fit. I also wanted a reason for Larcos Dengrim not to go along on the expedition for which he is hiring the PCs, to capture the enormous rust monster he wants to use to destroy the intelligent swords wreaking havoc in Sasserine.  So I decided that the way he had become immune to the control of the ego-weapons was instead to bind himself to an intelligent suit of platemail, whose objectives were orthagonal to the other factions’ war. Whenever his conversation with the PCs veered too close to a topic his armor found uncomfortable (like tangling with a rust monster) I described how a strange wind would flutter Dengrim’s tabard from beneath and he would quickly say “Let us speak no more of these matters.”

As they considered how they were going to subdue a giant rust monster, the players asked if they could buy a scroll of sleep. Another disclaimer I should make is that the DCCRPG rules we were using are still incomplete and undergoing revision and refinement; many details I’m talking about may have changed even by the time they hit open playtesting in mid-2011. Nevertheless, one of the things that the rules did have was guidelines for availability of special items by population size, which made it easy for me to rule that yes, since Sasserine had 100,000 people there was someone who could make such a scroll, but as they were the only such person in town they would be able to name any price they liked for it.

Once the party traveled on a raft to the Dungeon of Rust and Fire, I checked for random encounters each day of the voyage. The DCCRPG rules didn’t have a wandering monster chart, either because it hasn’t been written yet or because adventure-specific charts of what you meet on the Plains of Leng are better suited to its focus on emulating swords & sorcery fiction than the all-purpose “plains” chart suitable for simulating a world of Gygaxian naturalism. I hadn’t made such a chart for this adventure, so I opened the monster section at random and got Serpent-Men.

The raft schematic for the Serpent-Men encounter; note the Zocchi dice. Used with permission from George's excellent blog Legends & Labyrinths (click for link).

Prepping the combat stats for “War of the Wielded” reminded me how much page-flipping I used to do when playing 3.5. The adventure mentions a dagger of venom; I look it up in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and it tells me that this lets the wielder use a poison effect as per the spell, which means I have to open the Player’s Handbook to see what that does.

In contrast, it was quick and easy to run a DCC RPG encounter off the page, even a page I hadn’t read before. The serpent-men’s abilities were succinctly described right there:  “A serpent-man can cast an illusion that causes its head to appear like that of a specific person” and “A serpent-man can hypnotize lesser creatures. Any intelligent creature that looks into the serpent-man’s eyes, as in a conversation or if explicitly directed, is susceptible.” This gave me an immediate feel for fun things I could have the monsters do in this encounter to fulfill the description that they “prefer skullduggery to combat.” The only time I had to refer to other rules during the encounter was when I followed the suggestion that serpent-men are led by wizards, but the minor additional effort of borrowing the individual spell charts I’d printed out for the use of the wizard PCs was compensated by the fun of rolling up unpredictable effects for the spells I chose for the serpent-man caster.

Eventually the PCs reached the Dungeon of Rust and Fire. That isn’t detailed in the Savage Tide Adventure Path for which “War of the Wielded” is a side adventure, and the map provided for it here is disappointing in that beautifully-rendered but functionally-meaningless Paizo way; it’s neither useful for exploration (since the only choice is to turn right or left, which determines which of the two interconnected rooms you enter first) nor for tactical combat (both rooms are basically empty). I wanted to give it more flavor, so I decided that the Dungeon is a former dwarven iron mine that, Moria-style, dug all the way to Hell; the fiendish rust monster that the PCs are here to capture is part of the comeuppance earned by their greed. I borrowed maps from the Harn product Lost City of Kiraz (whose mix of beautiful cartography, simulationist world-detail, and lack of obvious game utility is a post in itself), and had the linear tunnel eaten away by the rust monster Kogloxen cut through its cross-section of wide-open dwarven halls.

That was my rust; for the fire, I had the dungeon’s stone thrones still occupied by the charred, pugilistic husks of eternally-burning dwarves. These weren’t a threat – they didn’t move, and when the PCs tried to communicate with them they just opened their mouth and went “HHHHHhhhhhhh,” which I said might just have been the sound of escaping steam – but especially following up on the encounter with similarly unfamiliar serpent-men that were dangerous, I felt that this creepy interaction fulfilled the mandate that opens the DCC RPG’s chapter on monsters:

A key element of player experience in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is a sense of wonderment. Your job as judge is to convey “the sense of the unknown” that was so easy to achieve when we were children. One way to achieve this is to make monsters mysterious. The less the players are able to predict the specifics of an encounter, and the more they depend on role-played hearsay, legends, and lore, the more exciting their encounters will be.

Running the combat encounter with the rust monster was extremely straightforward. The 3.5 statistics were usable as written, no conversion necessary. We used miniatures because I wanted to show off my childhood set of Grenadier’s Henchmen that I’ve been repainting. The DCC RPG gives the 3.5-compatible information necessary to make decisions like “can I reach there this turn”, without the mechanics like attacks of opportunity that used to make me feel like it was necessary to conduct 3E combat on a grid (even if I don’t now think that’s always true).

The combat did make me realize some things about how fighting feels different between the two systems:

  • The 3.5 rust monster had a +10/+5 iterative attack with its feelers. This is easy mental arithmetic as 3.5 attack bonuses go, but I did have to roll and add two different numbers each in its own separate step so I didn’t confuse which dice was primary vs. secondary.  I envied the DCC RPG warrior, whose iterative attacks used a d20 for the primary and a d16 for the  secondary and could thus be rolled as a single handful with a unitary modifier, so that once you knew what you needed to hit you could just look for the same numbers on each dice.
  • Due to its fiendish template, Kogloxen had spell resistance. It was interesting to see this example of 3.5 swinginess in action but the possibility of having your spell fizzle based on a bad d20 roll wasn’t balanced by the possibility of having something cool and unexpected happen on a good one. The DCC RPG casters were already rolling to see if they lost their spell (boo!) or exactly what it did if not (yay!). Having them then roll for spell resistance a second time and saying “oh, actually it doesn’t work after all” was a downer. In OD&D, spell resistance is something only one creature (the balrog) has, so that having your spells fail against it is an uncanny, unnerving experience that reinforces that you’re in a uniquely bad situation. Spell resistance then became one of  the building blocks of OD&D that Gygax used build the cathedral of AD&D, so lots more monsters got it. 3E’s project of standardizing and rationalizing AD&D meant that overcoming SR became a standard issue for casters, and until the late-3.5 splatbook era (when spells like assay spell resistance appeared) the main way to do this was away from the table; choosing spell penetration feats was part of the pre-play of character optimization that, like building a deck in Magic: the Gathering, became increasingly important with WotC D&D. Since one of the enlightenments of the old-school renaissance for me is preferring to focus on playing the game rather than planning for it, I’m glad to see that neither feats nor spell resistance is part of the DCC RPG. (Admittedly I haven’t read through all the monsters to see if any have spell resistance, especially since many have entries that suggest additional variants in which they may appear to add unpredictability; that’s OK because if only a few do, meeting one will be like encountering an OD&D balrog).
  • The fiendish rust monster also has damage resistance 5/magic. As another historical design mini-essay, I used to approve of the way that 3rd Edition lets you overcome a monster’s immunity to non-magical weapons or whatever by just dealing more damage. In practice, though, Kogloxen already had a ton of hit points even before you subtracted five points from every hit; combined with a measly 1d4 bite attack, this made combat promise to be a slog long after all the PC’s ferrous items had been rusted and nothing more was at stake. Having henchmen helped here, because a single bite could take one out, as did the PC’s planning combined with the DCC RPG’s light hand on defining combat mechanics. Immobilizing the beast in a web, shrinking it with a reversed enlarge spell, and calling for a few opposed Strength checks to tie it up with bolas ended the fight before it became tedious (but not before it ate a hireling); I shudder to imagine what it would have been like using 3.5’s grapple rules. In retrospect, using damage resistance instead of immunity that can be overcome only by having the right tool seems emblematic of some trends in WotC design that 4E took further: the mandate that all challenges must be resolvable through combat (even when running away to hatch a clever plan to learn and exploit a monster’s weakness would be both more fun and take less time to play out) and the tendency to use rules fixes to address scenario design issues, like making sure there are multiple ways around the monster you don’t have a magic weapon to defeat (see also the fifteen-minute adventuring day).

One last scenario design issue became apparent once the beast had been tied up and it was time to get it out of the dungeon. “War of the Wielded” says that, unless the players have come up with a clever plan to transport it, five DC 15 Strength checks will be necessary to move Kogloxen safely through the tunnels. Like all the 3.5 mechanics, this translates just fine to the DCC RPG rules. However, neither the adventure nor either of the rulesets provides any engaging consequences if one or more of these checks fail. Having the rust monster break free would have just meant more relatively tension-free combat with the same foe you just defeated; having PCs fall and take damage would have been faster to resolve but also largely meaningless unless there was the possibility of another encounter before healing, which there isn’t in the scenario as written.

One of the features I’d like to see in my ideal version of D&D is a system that makes the hazards of a journey through a perilous dungeon environment or untamed wilderness as compelling and intrinsically consequential as they can be in a game like Mouse Guard. It’d be easy enough to port in something like a skill challenge system, assuming you already know how to make one that works. One great and intentional virtue of the DCC RPG is that it doesn’t get in your way of this kind of house-ruling, and all the indications are that it also follows the flip side of asymmetric design and pay equal attention to how the rules it does have contribute to the shape of the game.


Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2011
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