Tabletop RPG Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics

dungeon crawl classics cover

One of the stumbling blocks I’ve frequently faced in my pursuit of the tabletop role-playing hobby is particular and fairly strong dislike for Dungeons & Dragons, and all its various permutations and editions.  Though technically it’s the first RPG I ever played, when my brother let me sit in on a game when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, it wasn’t the game that got me into the hobby.  That was Worlds of Wonder from Chaosium, and for years, that was my go-to game.  When I eventually went back and played some Dungeons & Dragons (I don’t know what edition), I found it extremely frustrating.  It felt like the things I didn’t like about video game RPGs (many of which built off of D&D ideas).  It felt like I constantly fought against the games rules, instead of using the rules as a framework for building a cool character and story.  I already didn’t like that, because it was always the preeminent tabletop RPG, D&D had to be all things to all people, and it had to weather the strongest storms of public outcry during the Satanic Panic of the 80s, it was an ultra-sanitized, homogenized, and as I frequently called it, Disney-fied game.  Take a look at its most popular setting, The Forgotten Realms, and you’ve basically got Disney’s tour through history. It’s all white people in funny costumes. Everyone’s got essentially European culture, but tweaked with some lip-service to whatever historic culture has been co-opted for whichever location.  Eventually, everything had this kinda samey, cartoony, shadow of Tolkien thing that I didn’t like. So, rules that felt constricting combined with settings and mindsets that felt bland and stultified…No thank you. Yet, D&D remained the go-to game for most fans of the hobby.  It was the game that weathered the storm of the internet, when so many gamers fled to online activities and game companies and local stores withered and died.  Sure, it changed hands. It went through a couple editions. It sparked some nerd-rage. But it survived. And when I started paying closer attention to the hobby again, it was, once more, the major game everyone seemed to be playing, yet it was still a game I didn’t have any interest in.  

Somewhere along the way, I heard about this game Dungeon World.  Meh.  But I kept hearing about it, and some of the things I heard about it sounded pretty cool.  So, finally I checked it out. Here was a game made by someone who must have played D&D and had some of the same complaints that I had about it, and decided they could make the system fun and playable.  It’s an interesting game. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but I think it would be a lot of fun. As I read more about that game, I kept coming across stuff about Dungeon Crawl Classics.  I saw some of the books, I heard it name dropped a few times.  Didn’t sound like it was up my alley. Just sounded like someone was doing their own D&D books.  Whatever.  Eventually I saw a review that led me to look a bit deeper, and that in turn prompted me to pick up the core book.  Wow. Dungeon Crawl Classics is really something.

When I played a lot of games with a lot of people back in the late 80s through the early 2000s, there was a type of game often referred to as a ‘beer and pretzels’ game.  This meant that the game was a lot of fun, but not necessarily something to take too seriously. Examples of beer and pretzel RPGs would be Ghostbusters or Paranoia.  These sorts of games seemed to fall out of favor in the 90s, as more serious, story and character based games became the norm.  But folks still enjoyed them. DCC attempts to recapture the feel of the original 1970s version of Dungeons & Dragons, and I think it does that quite well, but I think it succeeds most in creating a magnificent beer & pretzels game.  Usually when I read a really good RPG, I keep coming up with cool character ideas or great plots. While reading DCC, I just kept picturing sitting around a table with friends, laughing as a wizard’s spell goes wildly out of control, chuckling as another character gets eaten by a mutant plant, or doing a spit-take when a peasant heroically kills the big baddie with his crowbar.  The sense of fun this book game me was something I haven’t seen in a long time.

Dungeon Crawl Classics has system things I generally don’t like.  It’s a level based system, which is something I’ve never cared for.  It has alignments, though the alignments are simplified and work better for me (Law, Chaos, and Neutrality).  Those are two things that have always been pretty core to D&D, and both are things I don’t care for.  Only Earthdawn ever really made levels work for me, and even then, I had my issues.  But because this isn’t a game that delves deep into motivations, or looks to tell grand and intricately plotted stories, because it’s essentially a game to play when you just want to hang out with friends, have a few drinks, have a few laughs, and not worry too much, the level thing works.  A lot of the randomness works. Random encounters, mutations, spell effects, etc. all feel like part of the fun.

In a sense, this feels like it would be a more ‘detached’ game.  Where some games are all about getting into the head of your character, thinking about the world they live in and how it affects them, etc., DCC feels more like you’re watching something happen to someone, and only directing them through the action.  In that sense, it’s more like a video game, but it still has the social and imaginative aspects of tabletop RPGs.  I think in that way, it’s also a game that would be more fun for the casual gamer. You’re not likely to be any more invested in the way things turn out in a night of DCC than you would be playing a game of Evolution or Ticket to Ride.

I’ve seen a lot of people going on about Appendix N, Gary Gygax’s list of inspirational writing.  Frankly, it’s weird how much positive and negative writing I’ve seen about this. DCC definitely references it a lot, and it’s clear that recreating the atmosphere and style of the books listed there was part of the mission of the book.  I think they’ve done an admirable job. You get a sense of that pre-80s, weird Fantasy thing. This game is in a similar headspace to Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books or Ralph Bakshi’s film Wizards.  But it’s also clearly stated that one shouldn’t limit one’s reading or viewing, or where inspiration is taken from.  

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the artwork, which the book is crammed with.  The style varies, but it’s all got that early RPG, printed in the basement, drawn on a notebook in high school study hall kind of vibe, which totally works with this game.

Generally speaking, Dungeon Crawl Classics is not the kind of tabletop RPG I’m into.  I like character and plot based games. I like systems and mechanics that serve as only the thinnest of scaffolding on which to build stories, getting out of the way 99% of the time.  The less dice rolling, the less page flipping to see how something works, the better. However, DCC seems like a tremendous amount of fun, and is absolutely a game I want to try.  It seems like the ideal game to play between other, more serious games. If you’ve just wrapped up a three year game of Ars Magica, and everyone’s a bit burnt out, this would be a nice pallet cleanser.  

So, where Dungeon World has taken a serious look at Dungeons & Dragons and tried to make a good game out of it, Dungeon Crawl Classics has taken the better aspects of the original game, and tried to make it fun.  Here’s to that.


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