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


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.)


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.


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)
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.


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.

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