Wednesday, November 3, 2021

DCC's viability for campaigns

I occasionally encounter people asking about DCC’s suitability for a long-term campaign. Here are some of my thoughts, retrieved from the archived Story-Games forum:

Thread 1: [D&D] Replacement character's level

Johann:

In my opinion, DCC-as-written is not suitable for sandbox play at all.

Magic is vastly overpowered -- there are tons of threads about this at the Goodman Games forums - but the real problem is spellburn, i.e. the option to temporarily sacrifice ability points to get a bonus to spellcasting.

DCC's spell tables feature extreme maximum results at the top, such as the sleep spell putting to sleep the entire dungeon! This is absolutely awesome and why I chose DCC for our OSR sandbox campaign, a first for us: It makes the campaign railroad-proof because magic is so unpredictably powerful.

The problem is that spellburn allows PCs to 'buy' these results at will. Burn ten points of Strength, Dexterity and Personality each, and you're basically there. Abysmal ability scores (except for Intelligence and Luck) are not much of a problem for a spellcaster (your melee prowess sucked to begin with, and a low AC/Reflex save etc. are ugly, but you are in the second rank anyway).

It takes thirty days to recover from this but if the players set the pace of the campaign (as they do in a sandbox campaign), this drawback is a non-issure. Nuke the dungeon (unroof it with enlarge, put everyone to sleepsummon animals like a bunch of grizzlies to clear out the monsters - this is how my group cleared the first two levels of Dyson's Delve in an evening - or whatever), go home with the treasure, wait for the magic-user to recover.

In my opinion, only heavy-handed DMing can make magic-users pay the price by forcing the PCs into adventures against their will, either after a big spellburn or by using the convention-style set-ups of many DCC modules ("you have until sunrise before the mysterious tower disappears again").

(I admit that I have not tried using DCC-as-written, but I have analysed and houseruled the heck out of it and am convinced it's not what I would want for a sandbox.)

Eero:

Thanks for the DCC report, Johann - that's top shelf content, highly interesting. In fact, we should set you up with a new thread so you could tell us more.

All of what you say makes sense, by the way. I can see those rules doing those sorts of things. It's nothing you can't fix at the table, of course, provided you believe in the group taking responsibility for their own mechanics.
Setting some limits on spellburn, for instance, is easy.

Johann:

I don't want to bash DCC, by the way.

Back in the day, I wrote an actual play review (which is quoted among Goodman Games' favourite reviews of DCC, as I just discovered) and an article about my love for DCC.

It's chockful of great ideas and great art, but I think it has problems very similar to AD&D (needlessly clunky etc.) as well as balance issues (though that is a loaded term and a discussion for another day).

*-*-*

Thread 2: [DCC] Creating house rules for Dungeon Crawl Classics

I started a DCC campaign when the game came out and blogged about it here (basic philosophy, sessions 1-12 plus my endeavour to become a 'Killer DM'). My players keep a campaign log here in German (about a hundred sessions, though typically lagging behind 10+ sessions or so).

Before the campaign started, I successfully ran two character funnels, which caused me to write 
a very positive Actual Play Review. I heartily recommend running a funnel, particularly if you are squeamish about killing off characters as a DM!

I ran the funnels with DCC-as-written, but before we started the campaign proper (with Barrowmaze, which took about 50 sessions to complete), I made several changes to the rules (mostly simplifying the the class abilities).

Some observations on DCC:

#1: DCC is complex

DCC is complex (or “mechanically intensive” as Eero put it), and in fact too complex for my personal taste these days (though I ran Rolemaster 2e back in the day for many years so I'm a veteran of complex rules with tons of tables).

(Ebear, you’re definitely on to something when you suspect that people tend to go for simpler systems over time. In my case, I’d attribute this, among other things, to greater confidence in running a game and my friends and I having less time for the hobby due to families etc., so mastering complex rules becomes too time-consuming. I also dig your icecream analogy!)

One example of DCC’s complexity: As a fighter levels up, he or she has an increasing chance of scoring a critical hit, rolls a bigger and bigger critical hit die and on better and better tables (e.g. at level 2, a critical hit is scored on 19-20 and rolled with a d14 on table III).

I greatly simplified this and many other things right off the bat.

#2: DCC is clunky

I often got the impression that the designers were either not well-read regarding RPGs or playability was of little concern.

A minor example:

When a character uses an improvised weapon (e.g. a log of wood), he or she must roll a lesser attack die (typically a d16 instead of a d20), rather than suffering a fixed penalty like -2 to attacks (as for other conditions).

In practice, this requires reaching for another die and makes correcting the result after the roll (happens all the time at our table) less than elegant ("Hey, Bob, you forgot your fighter is using an improvised weapon!”).

These little rules and issues are no problem in isolation, but they sure do add up.

A more serious example:

Just like D&D 3e, DCC uses ability score damage which I find extremely clunky at the table. A temporary loss of 1d6 Dexterity points, for instance, (a) requires one to recalculate Armor Class, Reflex save, and ranged attack bonus and (b) this is as effective against a high-level character than a low-level one.

I redesigned all spells causing ability damage and also do this for any monsters in the DCC modules.

#3: DCC is not balanced

An example much discussed at the game’s forums:

For a mid-level caster, the 1st-level spell magic missile is, almost pound for pound (i.e. when assuming the same die roll), better than the 3rd-level spell lightning bolt.

For a 5th-level magic-user, for instance, a net result of 20 causes…
1d4+2 missiles, each causing [1d6+caster level] points of damage (for a total of 4.5*8.5=38.25)
or
4d6 points of damage against a single target (for a total of 14 points of damage, which can be halved by a Reflex save).

At the Goodman Games forums, Doug Kovacs, one of DCC’s chief artists (whose maps are one of the 
Three Things I love about DCC), has this to say about the issue:

“As a player I don't particularly want to spend my time comparing my character to what it could be or what other people’s characters are or have, unless it is part of the story. I could role play a wizard that is overly concerned whether his fireball is as good at as his magic missile…. but I couldn't really care much about that myself. I want to play the game. "What do I see? " "Cool, this is what I do". As a DM, most of the time when I observe, 'this is better than that' or 'this is different than that' I also just think 'that is interesting' and move along. Imbalance is everywhere and what makes a game fun.”

I accept this point of view (and can see the attraction of this laid-back attitude), but it’s not the way I play the game.

I made some big, simple changes to the magic rules initially (mostly nerfing spellburn) and again after 60 sessions (when even the player of a magic-user agreed the other PCs were mostly relegated to the status of lesser bodyguards at this point).

Also, I have rewritten 80% of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-level spells at this point and this has been an undertaking I did not expect. Changing a single rule (e.g. imposing a limit or drawback on spellburn) is easy, but rewriting dozens of complex tables is a different story altogether. So I think that DCC is not easy to adapt to a group’s own needs, though it is certainly possible -- I am very pleased with my homebrew version.

I also made and keep making smaller adjustments throughout the campaign, the most recent being a reduction of the duration of the shield spell some sessions after the party adopted the standard procedure of going to the dungeon’s entrance, casting and recasting that spell until they scored a high result, and going home if that did not work out (i.e. when the spell was lost for the day)…

My players know and accept that my homebrew version of DCC is an ongoing, imperfect project dear to my heart and after some round-table discussions and e-mails, we usually find changes everyone at the table can live with.

#4: DCC requires heavy-handed DMing

I laid out the negative effects of spellburn on sandbox play in the parent thread. There are several issues like this scattered throughout the magic rules. A lot of the advice on Goodman Games' forum, by fans of DCC, boils down to custom-fitting the adventure to the PCs, e.g. by…

(a) creating monsters with 'blindsight' to send against a party with access to an insanely overpowered colour spray (which blinds targets), or

(b) sending demons after spell-casters using spellburn to great effect because "using that sort of power will attract notice" (quoted from memory).

Make of that what you will.

Addendum:

Many DCC modules – most of which I find delightful! - begin with the following introductory text:

“Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back.”

I think DCC delivers on that promise in spades.

I attribute DCC’s success to recreating many people’s first contact with (A)D&D and similar RPGs (i.e., not OD&D!) by providing a nostalgic experience with just enough freshness: the modules always use unique monsters (rather than orcs), the many tables provide jaw-dropping surprises, the retro-art is top-notch, the strange dice are a geek’s delight, and the byzantine rules are a pleasure to explore and exploit.

However, I’ll also lament that the authors ignore 40 years of game design and recreate the very same mistakes AD&D made: overly complex and inelegant rules and a GM-is-god attitude to fix any problems.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Three Items Only -- but they are ALL magical!

Three Items Only -- but they are ALL magical!!

 

I'm considering a D&D mini-campaign with a very different approach to encumbrance and resource management: 

drastically reducing the number of items in the first place while making them much more useful.

 

The mythic underworld (or wilderness) is clearly delineated from the normal world (in keeping with Philotomy's Musings, which remind us that doors open for monsters only, monsters lose darkvision when serving a character etc.).

 

Here's the first draft of my rules:

 

(1) A character can only bring three items. If he brings more, he risks various severe complications from a random table (e.g. a curse).

 

(2) Provided a character follows this rule, all items brought temporarily become subtly magical.

 

(3) A subtly magical item "performs ideally" unless under too much scrutiny or put to the test. Some examples:


  1. A waterskin can be passed around to quench people's thirst and never runs out of water. However, trying to fill a bathtub with it will make it run dry normally and lose its magic.
  2. A flask of whiskey may reliably disinfect a wound, help a patient during an operation (i.e. cure hp), provide liquid courage (i.e. allow another morale roll) etc. This type of application uses up the whiskey.
  3. A sword is treated as magical for the purposes of hitting ghosts etc.
  1. A sandwich is not only very nourishing, but also very desirable to many monsters.
  2. A blanket provides not only warmth but also comfort.

 

Note that these effects are not set in stone.

 

(4) Once on the other side of the reality divide, characters can pick up or make more stuff (e.g. wield a slain goblin's weapon or sew a sack from a wolf's skin).

 

There is a similar limit on bringing too many people, effectively limiting party size to seven.

 

I was inspired by Lord Dunsany's fantastic little story "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" where the protagonist only brings a sword and a pickaxe...

Thursday, April 22, 2021

How to Choose a Temporary Commander in D&D (first draft)

PART I: What is this and why should I care?

This is a method for the game’s participants to temporarily entrust a single player with full authority to plan and conduct a specific undertaking (e.g. getting past the troll on the bridge). (It’s inspired by the office of dictator in the Roman Republic.) Participants and the dice will choose differently for different undertakings (see PART II below).

Having a single player be in charge of an undertaking has two major advantages:

a)    1. It limits discussion, leading to more time playing out actual operations.

b)     2.It ensures a coherent plan. (Not necessarily a good one, mind you, but often too many cooks spoil the broth.)

 

PART II: What is special about the proposed method?

The game’s participants choose a temporary commander via a combination of voting and rolling dice. Interested players pitch their plans to the group and everyone casts a secret vote. Each volunteer then rolls a d20 and adds his or her character’s Charisma modifier and a +2 bonus per vote. The highest result determines the temporary commander (and plan). Crucially, this result is treated as a consensus reached by the characters.

This method has two major advantages:

a)    1. Partially randomizing the process ensures that everyone can have a chance to be in the driver’s seat. (Frankly, we owe this to each other among friends and in the context of a game. You may not agree with Bob’s proposal but you should respect his desire and right to contribute.)

b)     2. Pretending all characters believe in the plan provides both emotional distance and roleplaying opportunities. (It’ll be easier to go along with Bob’s plan if you treat the situation as your character having been convinced by Bob’s.)

 

PART III: Step-by-step instructions

Step 1: Invoking the process

Any player may invoke the process if he or she feels a discussion is beginning to drag.

Step 2: Free-for-all discussion

For a limited time, the participants voice opinions, ask for clarifications from the DM etc.

Step 3: Stepping up

Interested players declare that they have a plan.

Step 4: Sales pitch

Volunteers pitch their plans to the group in a random order and briefly answer questions. (Think of politicians addressing the press.)

Step 5: Voting

All participants (i.e. the players and the DM) cast a secret vote each. The votes are tallied.

Step 6: Rolling the dice

Each volunteer rolls a d20, adds his or her character’s Charisma modifier and a +2 bonus for every vote. The character with the highest result is treating as having won over the party.

Votes can be cast for any number of reasons, e.g.

-          tactical reasons (Bob’s plan sounds most likely to succeed.)

-          social reasons (Bob’s had a rough day at work.)

-          artistic reasons (Bob’s plan promises lots of combat, is off the beaten path etc.)

Step 6: Roleplay

The players provide some description of the process at the character level. (“My magic-user is awed by the barbarian’s na├»ve courage and agrees to the crazy plan, surprising himself most of all.”)

Step 7: Execution

The player of the commanding character now plans and conducts the operation.

*-*-*

The proposal assumes a neutrally refereed D&D group with about six players and Charisma modifiers ranging from -3 to +3.

Also, this has not been tested yet, so I might be talking out of my ass. What do you think about this?

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Muster: a friendly primer to old school D&D

I'm momentarily reviving this blog to promote a project near and dear to my heart:

Eero Tuovinen is setting set out to write Muster: a friendly primer to old school D&D at IndieGoGo. This is a project very much in the vein of Matthew Finch's seminal Quick Primer for Old School Gaming and Jason Cone’s unforgettable Philotomy’s Musings.

Eero’s been blogging and writing about the philosophical underpinnings of wargamey D&D and how to run and play in a sandbox campaign for many years. He’s been a major influence on my gaming, along with Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign. But enough with all the OSR links – go check out Eero’s crowdfunding pitch for yourself!

Best wishes,

Johann

(I’m not affiliated with Eero in any way, but an obviously enthusiastic backer. Eight years and 80+ PC casualties and counting…)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Eero Tuovinen Is My Hero (Part III)

Eero Tuovinen has this to say on "optimizing at the expense of a robust and compelling fiction", e.g. by "swinging some sort of a pole-marmoset-flint knife combo platter in a customized effort to keep my character safe":

[T]o me the ideal of beautiful and powerful play in an organically developing Gamist game with heavy focus on positioning, such as this style of D&D, is to grasp with determination at a subject matter and challenge proposition that you find compelling; the question is not whether you could win at a GM's obstacle course by stacking rules and positioning to your favour, the question is whether you can triumph against a challenge chosen and internalized by yourself within the fictional constraints, partially unspoken, that determine whether your play is petty or compelling. Not whether you can build a knight that can slay a dragon, but whether a knight as per your understanding of knighthood can slay a dragon.

From this perspective we find that the actual tactical and strategic choices the players make and feel most strongly come about as a combination of two elements that reinforce each other: is what you're doing compelling as a fictional proposition, and is it smart (or effective, equivalently) as a move? In this context the oft-cited D&D attitude of maximizing your effectiveness for the sake of party success is irrelevant, and it is much more relevant to make room for an individual player's character image, the personal constraints they choose for their challenge: this guy [...] wants to triumph without resorting to underhanded tricks, this one wants to play a naive greenhorn, this one's playing a fatalist who is seeking his own death... All of these can be played in effective ways that are also compelling rather than flimsy in terms of fictive credibility.
I find the knighthood example particularly apt because my group has had discussions about the viability of playing an honor-bound, never-back-down-in-the-face-of-evil paladin in our old school campaign.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Becoming a Killer DM: Owning Up


Yesterday, I fucked up and ruined the integrity of our campaign. Now I'm trying to restore it.

*-*-*

The party confronted a major monster. The monster's description said it would probably talk to the characters even though that meant giving away all but certain surprise.

Stepping on a slippery slope that would prove my downfall, I gave the monster an insanely high initiative so it could maintain its advantage while still talking to the characters.

When hostilities erupted, one player actually beat the monster's initiative anyway, then rolled well on a spell casting roll, and then rolled spectacularly well on damage.

Behind the screen, I silently added +20 hp to the monster's hit points to prevent it from dying on the spot. OUCH!

*-*-*

I have some excuses, all of them bad, and some thoughts on how to foster the kind of mental hygiene espoused by Eero Tuovinen. Dunno if I'll get around to posting them next week.

In any case, my first fix is to own up to cheating.

For next week – the party is still in the middle of the fight --, I'd like to proceed as follows:

The monster's new and improved stats and abilities remain unchanged.

The permanent damage the monster has done up to this point is revoked (i.e. one player character regains two points of Luck and a valued henchman is not teleported away after all).

I hope to get things back on track.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Campaign Diary: DCC in the Wilderlands (Session 12)

Session 12: Early Retreat


The characters carefully examine a room with mysterious holes in the floor. They are disturbed by giant beetles and unknown cultists and return to the village early. The characters sell some loot and some of them later examine the enchanted forest nearby, moving into it for a few yards.

Observations
  • The session was quite slow and few things happened: The characters spent a lot of time searching for traps, fighting minor random encounters, selling loot and debating whether to explore the enchanted forest or not.
  • A potential problem rears its head: The players are responsible for pacing and risk management and cannot rely on the DM to provide either.
  • That said, I should have asked them to either examine the forest together - or not at all. There are too many random factors for me to foresee how long various endeavours might take, so solo quests are not really an option. 
  • Grognardia has a nice article on the The Rhythm of the Old School that has a more positive view on some of these issues.
In a nutshell
A session that was too slow for my tastes.