Posts Tagged ‘dcc rpg

11
Jun
11

You’ll Get No DCC RPG First Impressions From Me

"In today's adventure, we will confront the Grants and Contracts office as we attempt to solve the mystery of why its computer system won't interface with the one that does the financial conflict of interest forms."

In my day job, I spend a fair amount of time getting research investigators to fill out conflict of interest forms. This requires an annual statement of all the things you have any kind of financial stake in, then each time we apply for money from a new funding source everyone involved has to state whether the proposed work does or doesn’t affect these interests.

I like to think that my own financial conflict of interest statements bring a smile to the face – or milk shooting out the nose – of some guy in Compliance. He’d have to be a nerd like me to get the joke: here we sit, who dreamed of becoming puissant magic-users or legendary thieves, now trying to survive our institutional mega-dungeon as Papers & Paychecks characters instead. Last year I reported income from Wizards of the Coast, Goodman Games, and my son’s elementary school’s Board of Regents (for the afterschool class), plus ownership of Adventuring Parties LLC which I formed to take over the latter. This year I may or may not get paid by WotC for invoices on stuff I never fully completed and they never released as planned; I’ll have equity in two new gaming startups, which will get their own here-are-my-biases posts as they get announced; and I sure hope to cash a few checks from Goodman Games for writing some of the adventures Mr. Goodman and I have been kicking around, like Moonlight on Elf Hill or Robbing You Makes Me Rich, Slavedriver, and Gutting You Makes Me Glad.

All that said, it’s not a clash of financial self-interest that keeps me from talking about the DCC RPG beta the way everyone else in our echo chamber is doing. First, any actual paid work is still in the fantasy realm of when-I-have-more-time. Second, I’d get paid by the word, so that once it’s published neither helping the project succeed nor trying to make it fail would affect my bottom line. And third, getting paid to do something for Goodman, like Zolobachai’s Wagon in the Book of Rituals, hasn’t stopped me from talking about it before.

The problem for me in talking about the DCC RPG beta is that I’m too close to it. And the reason that’s a problem is not a conflict of interests, it’s that it makes it hard for me to perceive what’s actually on the page. I formed my first impressions of the game over a year ago, at a pickup playtest Joe put together at Gary Con II. Immediately afterward, I started bugging him to become a playtester, shamelessly exploiting our previous working relationship to get a look at the rules-in-progress. Since then, I’ve:

  • run Joe’s adventure Citadel of the Emerald Sorceror at Fal-Con, and played it with my nine-year-old son in preparation
  • converted Castle Zagyg and Castle of the Mad Archmage on the fly to the DCC RPG for Anonycon (which I wrote about in the Glorious Swinginess post)
  • converted the Paizo 3.5 adventure “War of the Wielded” on the fly to the DCC RPG (which I wrote about in the Uncomplicated Fun post), and playtested the Moonlight on Elf Hill adventure I’d drafted specifically for the system, for the New York Red Box crew
  • taken all of the feedback my players and I generated from these experiences and passed it on via email and in-person conversations to Joe Goodman, Harley Stroh, Doug Kovacs, Dieter Zimmerman, Michael Curtis, along with my suggestions about how the problems we encountered could be addressed and the things we like carried further, which we then all kicked back and forth until there was a collective “yes that’s it”
  • participated in discussions with some/all of the above plus artists like Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen, Brad McDevitt, and Erol Otus on visual inspirations – what was special about the look of the pulp covers that the original D&D creators grew up on, what does it mean to be “retro” nowadays, how does that relate to the backward-looking mystique of the original game where most of the Appendix N entries were already oldies and the art looked like medieval woodcuts and grimoire illustrations even when it also referenced contemporary underground comix?
  • tossed in a lot of unsolicited stuff of my own like “here’s how XP for both finding and spending GP has made the White Sandbox campaign more fun” and “this is my personal theory on why wandering monsters are essential” and “a good idea from the OSR hive mind handles this problem thusly” and “yeah that Margaret St. Clair book is totally wack, wouldn’t it be awesome to play in a game that pays as much attention to that inspiration as to the Big Three?”

At some point I apparently did enough of this kind of stuff to earn an Additional Design credit, even though I didn’t write a word of the rules. The important thing here isn’t that my name appears on the book, although this is indeed a game I’m very proud to have been part of. Nor is it that Joe is the kind of standup guy who would give me that credit, unasked for and indeed unmentioned until I saw the beta release. The thing that matters to you, the thing that is amazing and unprecedented in my experience, is that Goodman Games listened closely to its playtesters and made ongoing, substantive changes to essential design features of the DCC RPG system based on volunteer feedback.

When I look at the beta, I don’t see what’s on the page. I see the realization of a vision of what D&D would have been like if it had grown out of all the same pulp fantasy and early-70s inspirations Arneson and Gygax and their playgroups loved, except with the 3E System Reference Document swapped out for Chainmail as the “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” that were near to hand when they reached the limit of the number of rulings they could make on the fly and still keep track of in their heads, and thus decided to add a little more systemization. Like a D&D game or a shared hallucination, this vision is both personal and collective, and it’s responded to my input continually and organically. At this point it would be both hard and not-fun for me to go through the document and discern what’s there for outside readers to see vs. what’s just the way I dreamed it.

There are many good reasons you might not care about the DCC RPG. But if you are interested in its vision even a little, and/or in the scale on which that vision will be able to reach the wider population of gamers, I encourage you to go play a session or two. You might start out by assuming it’s always right, in order to see how the rules play out and what their unspoken implications might be, but the text frequently encourages you to house-rule, interpret, and make the DCC RPG your own game. When you do – when you achieve the mix of old-school and new, of pulp inspiration and gameable mechanics, that hits your group’s sweet spot – go to the Goodman Games forums and post about it. The shared vision hasn’t yet died and left a fossil; on the contrary it’s unusually vital, growing and changing to better adapt to its environment. Once it’s published you can always change it to make it the way you want – but now is the time when your input can result in changes to the system that’ll help others discover that the way you want it is awesome and they never would have thought to do it that way without your input. Seize this opportunity!

13
Dec
10

Glorious Swinginess: Results from the DCC RPG/Castle Zagyg Experiment, part 1

Rules have emergent effects; those that don't fit an individual group's approach may not be used in play. (Cartoon for the DCC RPG by the Wizards of Ur.)

With Anonycon 2010 now just a happy memory, it’s time to review what I learned from the experiment of running the Castle Zagyg adventure using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. This was interesting for me because:

  • I’m well versed in how this adventure plays out using other rulesets. Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works was written for Castles & Crusades; its unofficial completion Castle of the Mad Archmage was written with AD&D 1E in mind; and the other seven times Eric, Joe, and I have run this adventure at conventions & the playtests thereof, we’ve used Lamentations of the Flame Princess and house-ruled AD&D. I was curious to see how using different rules would change the experience.
  • In my previous experience with the DCC RPG (as a player at GaryCon and a DM at Fal-Con) we’ve played adventures written specifically for this system. I was interested to see how the feel of the game would carry over to a different scenario (Castle Greyhawk’s open-ended megadungeon vs. a Tomb of Horrors-style tournament-linear deathtrap).

I’ll start by addressing comments from readers of the original post. Scott asks:

Can I get some details that distinguish the DCC RPG?

Sure, but first some caveats! My experiences are based on a playtest version. Anything I talk about here may have changed by the time the game is released, and nothing I say should be taken as the official word; this is just my experience as a GM and playtester of the still-unfinished system.

The most striking distinguishing feature that I saw emerging from the rules was that the DCC RPG is designed to generate unpredictability. (In part 2 I’ll address Gregor’s comment and talk about some other features of the game that emerge from other, non-rule aspects of the system).

This is in marked contrast to the most recent edition of D&D, a stated design feature of which was a reduction in swinginess. Narrowing the range of variation in outcomes is useful for game designers concerned with balance, adventure writers concerned with being able to predict whether encounters will provide a level-appropriate challenge for a party of PCs, and DMs whose pre-planned campaign arcs make them concerned with things like ensuring the characters have enough resources left when they meet the Big Bad to make it a challenging fight, but not so many that it’s a cakewalk.

However, many old-schoolers have pointed out that this increased predictability runs contrary to the sandbox spirit, which celebrates playing to find out what happens (as the new-school indie game Apocalypse World has it). We don’t want the heroes’ inevitable-but-just-barely triumph over the BBEG to be prearranged. We embrace systems that give players plenty of tools (from spells and magic items to referee adjucation of a clever idea) that can end or avoid a potentially grueling fight with a single action. And when a string of unusually high or low dice rolls turn a seemingly-manageable encounter into a bloodbath, we consider this not a failure of game design but an opportunity to demonstrate player skill by running away.

Unpredictability is something most of us advocate without doing anything about it. I’ve stated my own preference for a high-granularity system offering players the occasional chance to be the one whose decisions shape the entire session, rather than giving them lots of little choices each with a narrowly delimited impact on the outcome of an encounter. But the guiding principle for my house rule for critical hits – roll damage twice and take the higher result – was to reduce swinginess by keeping the results within the range that’s possible from a normal hit. (My more recent addition to this rule – making a roll of 6 on either die “exploding” so that you roll again and add it to the total – grew out of the desire to allow crits to deal truly extraordinary damage from a crit.)

The DCC RPG puts its money where its mouth is. Although its mechanical core is derived from D&D 3E, the DCC RPG repudiates challenge ratings (that edition’s tools for making the outcome of an encounter more predictable), and offers more new ways for things to turn out in a completely unexpected way than any other retroclone or D&D variant I know.

For starters, extreme dice rolls have more of an impact. There are awesome critical hit charts, whose “foe’s torso explodes like a blood blueberry” style is worthy of being called Rolemaster-esque (although which chart you use interestingly depends on character class rather than weapon type). Strangely I’ve never seen these come up in play, even though the fifth-level warriors in the Anonycon playtest were capable of scoring a critical hit against a one hit die foe on an unmodified roll of 16-20. Critical fumbles played a major role at the Fal-Con playtest, causing the friendly-fire death of at least one PC, but didn’t pop up in either of my Anonycon runs.

The most important source of unpredictability at Anonycon came from the DCC RPG spell check mechanic, where you roll a d20 modified by caster level & ability score to determine the effects of the spell you just cast. A low roll might mean that the spell doesn’t have any effect; a high one can produce unexpectedly potent effects. Here’s an example from the second of the weekend’s playtest.

Rat King: grossest wandering monster EVAR

Eric’s party had just defeated some creepy net-dwelling creatures when a wandering monster check brought a tide of ordinary-sized rats, on the backs of which were born seven rat kings. (The Castle of the Mad Archmage‘s encounter table specified 2d6 giant rats; this interpretation of that result was indebted to the system-emergent aspects I’ll talk about in part 2, as well as to Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants which I picked up at the So Cal Mini Con III’s book swap. )

Rather than confront these what WAS that things, Eric’s wizard decided to get the party into the room they’d just cleared and use the ward portal spell to keep the rats out. This is a classic old-school moment of swinginess: an ability available only to one character has the potential to end a fight before it even starts. 4E sees this as anathema – among other reasons, because an adventure designed around the expectation that this character can seal a door becomes unpredictable again if that character’s player misses a session – and so it eliminates the problem, first by making rituals like hold portal available to everyone who invests a feat and second by requiring them to take so long to cast that they can’t be used in a fight-or-flight situation. (Notably, folks interested in making 4E play more like 1E have reduced the casting time of rituals to a standard action).

“OK,” I said, “you have enough time to get inside the room and cast before the rats are upon you.”  Which is awesome; I love when players have choices that can radically alter a situation. And then the rules of the DCC RPG upped the stakes by tantalizing the wizard with the possibility of safe haven, but making it subject to the whims of fate:  “Roll your spell casting check and let’s see what happens.” Drama hanging on the outcome of a dice – this is why I play RPGs!

Eric rolled a 15: Portal completely disappears for 2d6 x 10 days, leaving in its place only a blank space of wall. During this time no passage is possible via normal means.

Whoa! I’d been excited by the way the rules would adjucate a simple but dramatic yes/no. This result of the spell check mechanic turned it into the improv principle’s yes, but… now you’re sealed into a room with no visible exit for weeks on end!

Everything that happened from that point on was hugely enjoyable for me as a GM because, just like a player, I was exploring the unknown; Eric and I were collaboratively working out the consequences of an imagined situation with no idea how it was going to turn out.

“Can the party tunnel out of here?”

“Well, it looks like the wall between the room and the passageway is just a few feet deep here,  let’s think about the tools you have – hammer, spikes, steel weapons – yeah you can chip away the masonry and slide out some of the stone blocks, but it’s going to take days. Did you bring rations?”

“Yeah, remember when I said I was shopping before I left town, we have a week apiece. Hey, wait, I have a spell that might help out here, contact patron. I’ll cast that before we get started.”

“OK, give me a spell check,” I said, rubbing my hands with glee. I’ll talk about what ensued as a result in part 2 of this playtest report, where we talk about color and non-rule aspects of the system that influence play.

03
Dec
10

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG & Castle Zagyg at Anonycon

This weekend at Anonycon I will be playtesting the forthcoming Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as part of an interesting experiment in which Eric G. and I will put the Forge axiom “system does matter” to the test. (That’s Eric the White Sandbox player of Bartholomew Honeydew, not any of the other Erics that New York Red Box has been fortunate enough to accumulate in numbers large enough to be confusing; let’s not be thrown off the scent by Mr. Honeydew’s many in-character aliases.)

The plan is that Eric and I will both do runs of Gary Gygax and Jeff Talanian’s Castle Zagyg: The Upper Works, leading into Joe Bloch’s Castle of the Mad Archmage.  We’ll do the same things that were so much fun when Joethelawyer and I ran it at Fal-Con:

  • a convention-long competition to see who can reach the deepest level and escape with the most treasure
  • a persistent world in which each session’s adventure changes things for the next party, and players can return to play the same character in a later run
  • player-created magic items whose effects are unpredictable and descriptive instead of mechanical
  • the likelihood of horrible PC deaths as parties bite off more of the castle and dungeon’s enormous environs than they can chew
  • and, if we have enough players, dividing players into two separate parties which are exploring the ruins at the same time and may clash with one another, as so memorably happened at the end of the first Fal-Con run.

The thing we’ll be doing differently this time is that Eric will be running Zagyg using his own AD&D house rules, while my runs will be using the playtest rules for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The differences between one edition of D&D and another are endlessly rehashed, and the DCC RPG has a number of unique twists that I’m quite excited about. But what effect do these rules variations really have on play? I think it’ll be fascinating to get some data on this question by trying two different systems in the same mega-dungeon environment over the course of a single convention weekend.

Courtesy of Wizards of Ur, this is one of the cartoons that will illustrate the DCC RPG rules, inspired by those in the AD&D DMG

The big uncontrolled variable, of course, is that Eric and I are different DMs each with our own styles, and we’ll have different groups of players each of whom has their own approach. I’m pretty sure that these differences in what each person brings to the the table always has a bigger effect on the experience of playing a roleplaying game than differences in the system they’re using; in fact I think a lot of what seem like important differences between this RPG and that one are actually second-order effects, caused mainly by the fact that different groups of players are attracted by aspects of each RPG (which might include rules and mechanics but are equally likely to include the game’s artwork, its image among gamers, the ways it’s marketed, the environment in which it’s usually played, etc.)

However, I think that the tournament format may funnel everyone into a common set of goals and approaches; certainly Eric and I have spent some time talking about standardizing our procedures & playing in one another’s games, and at Fal-Con the goal of getting deeper and finding treasure did prove effective in focusing the kind of play that arose out of the enormous Zagyg/Archmage sandbox.

Since much of this post is promising stuff that’ll happen this weekend – and appearing too late for most of y’all to decide “hey I want to go to Stamford this weekend and play games” (although you totally should, since Anonycon = awesome), I’ll end with some places you can read more about the DCC RPG:

Joe Goodman running the DCC RPG at the So Cal Mini Con III, courtesy of Cyclopeatron

Jeff’s Gameblog with images and notes

Cyclopeatron with a playtest report & interview at a Dead Gamers’ Society meetup

Beyond the Black Gate with a playtest report of a session run by Rob Conley

Bat in the Attic with a three-part report of that session from Rob’s perspective

One thing that’s worth noting about all of the above is that they’re discussing adventures written specifically for the DCC RPG, which in my experience so far have tended to be more or less linearly structured tournament-style adventures that have been fun because of their atmosphere and hideous death toll, in the mold of Tomb of Horrors/Tower of Gygax. I will be very interested to see how the system handles a mega-dungeon sandbox experience that’s more in line with the way my regular group plays; I expect that it’s going to be awesome, and think some of the unique things about the DCC RPG rules will stand out better against a more plain basic-D&D background. Cue discussion of where the adventures published for a system fall into the “system does matter” equation!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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