Saturday, March 8, 2014

GM's Day Sale DCC RPG Reviewish

Picked up the DCC RPG last week on rpgnow's GM's Day Sale, and have been slowly working through it.  I have fond memories of some of the DCC modules for 3.x, and the eminently respectable Raven Crowking recommended it as his system of choice, so it seemed worth a look.  Seeing as it's been out for quite a while now, this is less of a chapter-by-chapter review than my normal, and more a set of random notes.

  • The Luck mechanic is fantastic.  You roll your character's luck as an ability score, it modifies a few things based on your class and a roll on the "Auspicious or Inauspicious Birth" table, and you can permanently burn points of it to get a bonus to any roll (except for thieves and halflings, whose luck regenerates).  At first I was skeptical of luck-as-a-stat, and it does seem sort of weird to be sitting at a table rolling dice for the luck of a character, but the more I read the clearer it got - this is action points done nearly-associatively.  Even better, luck can be altered by offending or serving deities, Nethack-style.  Low-luck characters are targeted preferentially by traps and unintelligent monsters - there are incentives both for holding on to luck and for spending it, unlike with most action point schemes where there's no reason to hold on to them except that you think you might need them later.  Lots of fun details like that.
  • Spellcasting is Iron Heroes-style (honestly if I were to compare DCCRPG to any other RPG, I'd call it Iron Heroes with OSR's lethality, randomness, and general rules simplicity).  I like how clerics can offend their deity, prayers per day aren't fixed, wizards can have patrons, spells can backfire, spellburn,  corruption ensues, &c.  Mercurial magic is a really cool idea but seems like it would be a paperwork hassle (each caster gets random side-effects regarding each spell; d% table roll modified by...  luck!), but I guess when a max level wizard only knows 16 spells it's not that bad.  Couldn't bring myself to read all 180ish pages of spell descriptions, though.
  • It is not often that I can say that I liked the art in an RPG book.  This is, however, an exception.  The art is grotesque, cartoony, and frequently humorous.  The skeleton chides the farmer stabbing it with a pitchfork.  The party wizard fumbles a spell and accidentally turns the fighter's head into a chicken while the umber hulk closes; the elf is nonplussed.  Severed heads, ugly PCs, eight-pointed stars of chaos, and derpy monsters abound.  Small comics are interspersed.  The tone, overall, is appropriate - it tells the players "don't take the game, and particularly the fate of your character, too seriously.  If (when) you die, laugh it off."  The one place it bugs me is in the table of contents, where I feel the embellishment hinders the functionality.  Also I would not want to print this pdf.
  • The critical hit rules serve much the same function as ACKS' mortal wounds, but in some ways they present a superior user experience (as it were).  You get a broad variety of death and dismemberment from both, but the thing with mortal wounds is that you never see the mortal wounds you put on critters you don't bother performing first aid on.  This means that the vast majority of observed mortal wounds are suffered by the players, unless they make a regular practice of checking each enemy humanoid to find one still in good enough shape to interrogate (as they should but never do).  The flip side of this, of course, is that time is saved by not rolling mortal wounds for monsters nobody cares about.  In contrast, as DCC fighters get an increased crit threat range, it seems like PCs should be scoring crits on monsters with a frequency comparable to that at which crits are scored against them.  This is likely more satisfying than accumulating maimings for most players.
  • The d7 and d14 stuff is terribly annoying.  I can work with d3, d5, d16, and d24 without needing to conditionally reroll any dice or buy any more dice, but come on man.  Relatedly, the dice chain mechanic (works a lot like Savage Worlds' or Stargrunt's) has a small bug where upgrading to a d24 action die from a d20 reduces the likelihood that you'll score a crit.
  • The much-discussed zero-level funnel seems to serve much the same statistical function as ACKS' "roll 5 sets, pick one to play and two as backups", but with characterization.  On the minus side, you have to play an adventure with a giant pack of L0s, and the one you wanted might not survive.  Not sure I'm sold on running this the hard way.
  • One page of rules for skills.  I approve.
  • I like the Elder and Primal notions for monsters ('templates', if you will), but think the incidence (1 in 100) is probably a bit high.
  • Some of the 3.x hold-overs I think are mistakes.  I don't mind cutting it down to three saves or switching to 10+x AC, but ascending save DCs (which outpace save bonuses) and subexponential XP to level seem less than ideal, since PC death is almost certainly going to result in split-level parties.  I guess I'm less concerned about ascending save DCs than I would be in ACKS since casters are always risking soul and sanity when they cast, but it should still mean that lethality continues to be high even for high-level characters (which is great if that's what you're going for, I suppose).
  • DCC addresses the fighter's perceived boringness with Might Deeds of Arms (covers all your typical tripping and bull rushing and other combat maneuvers, occurs frequently as a side-effect of successfully attacking) and crits, where ACKS addressed it with fighter damage bonus and cleaving.  I feel like DCC wins on style, while ACKS wins on needing fewer table lookups and d7s.
  • Making hobbits dedicated specialist two-weapon fighters seems stupid to me.  There, I said it.
  • Worldbuilding - DCC advocates a small world of insular hamlets, with wilderness travel being dangerous business, information from distant places being rare, and the castles of local lords serving in place of traditional inns.  While it is aimed at a Medieval setting rather than ACKS' Late Antiquity, I could certainly steal some of these (the castle thing's a great idea, and dangerous travel is already a thing I do).
  • Worldbuilding II - Extraplanar influences are recommended even at low levels.  Food for thought.
  • Magic items - rare, only form of reliable magic, come with a luck penalty for hubris, for claiming the creative power of gods.  Awesome.
  • Monsters - I like some of the random variation tables for humanoids and undead.  But, there's a line in the section on treasure that basically sums up a theme I dislike here: "a core concept of the DCC RPG is lack of predictability in the nature of foes encountered, both in their combat abilities and the treasure that is rewarded."  I would argue that it isn't just the foes that are unpredictable here, but also magic and combat in general (between the crit and fumble tables and how magic works).  I like the notion that players can and should be able to gather reliable intelligence on how the world and the monsters inhabiting it work - if they kill a dragon and the treasure is good, they should be justified in drawing the inference that dragonslaying is potentially a good business model.  I guess making monsters unreliable within a single species is a good way to force players to do their intelligence-gathering ahead of time each adventure, rather than assuming that past inferences will see them through (though this ties back to DCC's liking for unique monsters - if there's only one minotaur, where are you going to draw inferences from anyway?).  That said, I think my players, who aren't particularly motivated by coinage-treasure and who don't typically draw explicit inferences regarding monster treasure types would be OK with this.
  • The Quests and Journeys chapter is very mythologically grounded and could make for some fun gaming.
  • Did not read the sample adventures.
  • Table of random names in the back of the book will probably see some use.

 So, the verdict.  I would play this game, as a one-to-three shot or a convention game definitely.  I could also see running it on that sort of scale.  I think it'd be a pretty good game for introducing new players - a lot of the complexity is hidden until runtime in the critical, fumble, and spells tables, while the build-time complexity is lower even than ACKS except for maybe rolling mercurial magic for every spell.  I think ACKS will remain my preference for long-long-form campaign play, though, because it does provide rules for a saner, consistent operating world-context and change of tiers from dungeon-crawling to ruling realms; DCC seems to be purely adventuring-focused up through its maximum level.  The list of things I would steal for ACKS:
  • Luck, maybe.  I guess the simple thing would be "you have a luck score, its modifier applies to all your saves as well as games of chance, and you can burn it permanently for bonuses to a roll.  Thieves regenerate luck over time, other classes do not (replace thief prime req with luck?).  Pious acts can earn you luck, impious acts can cost you luck, bad rolls on Tampering With Mortality can cost you luck, certain in-world superstitious may alter your luck."
  • Give mages the option to have a supernatural patron rather than a master.  This would provide them an opportunity to learn a "theme" of spells preferentially, while also not requiring them to go visit a master in a particular place for training upon levelling.  Some sacrifices may be required, of course...
    • I guess this was basically what I did with the lich-skull.
  • The magic system could probably be lifted wholesale (and honestly about half the book is the magic system).  I like the ideas here, that magic is unreliable and not expressed in spells per day and has a lot of weirdness to it, but I don't know if I would want to port it in its entirity or if it would actually be fun in play.  One problem with alternate magic systems in ACKS is figuring XP values for your modifier wizard...  But random and riskier magic is definitely something I should think about.
  • Castles instead of inns is happening.  Extraplanar influence is definitely something I'd like to see more of in my games (potentially approaching even a Magic the Gathering level of extraplanarity), but ACKS doesn't really support it natively, so there's some work to be done there.
  • Elder and primal monsters might get borrowed.
  • Big Table O'Names is getting borrowed.

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