Thursday, April 28, 2011

The DCCRPG playtest review

I had a chance to play the new Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG last week. I had fun playing it - but with that particular group of people, I'd have fun playing anything.* The question now: Is the DCCRPG a good game?

To answer, let's start with something that the excellent old-school blogger Jeff Rients wrote. When trying to explain D&D to someone, he said he describes it as "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula." That sounds like fun. No - it sounds like crazy-mad awesome fun. High-octane over-the-top extra-hyphenated fun, and I'd absolutely play that game. If you go read the marketing text for the DCCRPG itself, that Conan vibe is all over it.


The actual play experience is more like "You play Wentworth the Squashy, I play Buglug the Easily Bruised. We team up and get killed by a pit trap after about 20 minutes."

Some people will enjoy that. The relatively low power level and the high mortality rate are very important to the old-school experience, and you gotta assume that a game with "dungeon crawl" in its name is a deliberate throwback to the distant RPG past. Trouble is, we've had more than 30 years of game-design evolution since then. The DCCRPG takes some of that evolution into account - character generation is a hoot, the different character classes have sharply defined Neat Things they can each do.** However, it fails to account for the biggest change over that time. A lot of people like their characters now, and want to play them without constantly cringing about the many possible ways to die because you weren't thinking like the game designer was.

I hate that cringing thing.

Still, not everyone does. And there are several good things about the DCCRPG as a system. Again, character generation itself was great - very fast, but with several touches that customized each individual. The game itself is low on magic items, which I like, relying instead on player/character skill. Magic spells are light-years ahead of how most fantasy games treat them - probably my favorite thing about the whole game. The overall mechanics are very swingy, which can be good; I'd like that more if not for the lethality. And our admittedly higher-level PCs definitely had abilities that put us outside the ken of mere mortals. I'd consider buying this for the character generation and spell tables alone.

I'd be saddled with a bunch of stuff I didn't want, though. The game's fundamental assumptions are waaay too far from mine - too casually lethal, too stereotypical an idea of "adventure." That's something you could work around, of course. Those assumptions aren't hard-coded into the mechanics, and an average GM could easily adjust lethality or take adventures into the wilderness or have adventures that actually involve talking to other sentient creatures... but I'd still be stuck with a game that thinks everyone should have one immutable character class, and that "dwarf" is a character class, and that uses all kinds of weird specialty dice like d7s, and that's really designed to do this One. Very. Specific. Thing.

Again, the game does say "dungeon crawl" right in the name. Nobody's hiding that. It played pretty much the way I had anticipated, and I really enjoyed some parts of it. With a different design focus, this could be a great next-gen system, one that provides a shot in the arm to fantasy RPGs and that competes well against D&D and Pathfinder. It's just too bad that the game's wearing blinders. For everyone who looks back with nostalgia at the playstyle of the 1970s, there are 1d6+6 who don't. That's why so few games look like old D&D nowadays. The DCCRPG is a good game that, of its own volition, is stopping itself from being great. It's too bad - I wish I liked this game more. I'd love to play Conan, but this is a game that forces you to act like Buglug the Easily Bruised.

*Except for whatever horrible game you're about to suggest in the comments. YOU WIN, CLEVER INTERNET PERSON.

**Really? Character classes, in the year 2011? As you'll read in a few days, I think classes are bad design. These were pretty fun, but I'd still prefer a game with modular rules for making your own kind of dude. Cugel or the Grey Mouser, for example, would be impossible to create in this game from what I've seen.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I like what I write, I guess

I'm still entertained by this. It's easier for me to write about my Dislikes than my Likes, which is something I'm pondering.

I enjoy building a world - that's a huge part of the fun for me as a GM. As a player, too. I like coming up with little social, cultural, and political details. It's fun when they have some implied connections to each other. You can use them to suggest possibilities for future adventures. Several times in Gorbadin, players discovered small stone carvings of odd elongated heads - who created the urgol-faces, and why? We never found out, but we could have...

That kind of freedom comes when you create the setting. Things can go in whatever direction you want. They'll reflect the creators. My Gorbadin campaign was easily the best one I've been involved with, not because I created it, but because everybody created it. We all added stuff that we thought was cool, and you know what? That made it cool.

And I have yet to discover a pre-written setting that was satisfying. I feel constrained by the original designers' intent, which is often different than my own. Deadlands is a neat idea, but I can't get past their handwave about slavery. My fondness for 7th Sea is well-known, but the established history is sketchy and has a tone I don't enjoy. Even my perennial favorite Castle Falkenstein needs some revamping before it's something I want to run. I just like stuff better when it's my stuff, or my group's stuff.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. I don't like dealing with the physical environment, I don't like maps, I don't like solving puzzles. I had a chance to write for the fairly-successful Dungeon Crawl Classics line, and I blew it - it's the only time I've punted something, but I just could not get myself to write dungeon crawls. They're sterile and boring. They waste all the social and interactive potential of the RPG form. They're arbitrary. And they have terrible stories, when they have stories at all. Dungeons hem you in and take away your choices; RPGs should expand your options and give you freedom.

Judge for yourself. Here's a D&D 3.5ish rewrite of the Gygax classic "Tomb of Horrors," as done by Jason Alexander. There are some clever traps here, all right. Yep. Clever. Trappish. Gonna kill you right dead, they are. Whee. Remind me why my character is doing this again?

Overall, I liked D&D 3.0 and 3.5. But when I ran across the DMG sidebar about "Why we're returning to the dungeon," I swore out loud at my book.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Merry Marvel Marching Society needs you!

I wanted some Stan Lee hype, but this early in the day I got nothin'. Excelsior!

Well, let me direct you to Zak S talking about how Old School Roleplaying = DC and New School Roleplaying = Marvel. It's an excellent analysis of both comics and RPGs, looking at the different things they focus on. Here's the thesis statement, for those of you who remember your composition classes:

DC Comics--like Old School D&D--are more about the world being interesting, whereas Marvel Comics--like new D&D--are more about the characters being interesting.

Zak is definitely a DC, while I'm Marvel all the way. As should be obvious from today's subjects...

Give me something to care about, and I won't miss a session.

Give me something to hate, so I can hunt it down. Give me something to fear, and I'll fight like hell to escape it. Give me something to love, so it's all worthwhile. Give me something to become.

Or let me create it myself. I'm not picky. I want to invest myself in some aspect of the game - my character, of course, but also in the broader world around them and the narrative they're building. This is an area where I think both the old-school Dungeons Must Kill You and the new-school Narrative Matters More Than Characters have gone off the rails. A big part of the fun, to me, is getting wrapped up in what happens. Not just paying attention to events, but caring about how they turn out - being happy when things work and disappointed when they don't. I'm not here to solve puzzles, or to endure a predetermined storyline. I'm here to get excited about what happens to my character (or to the PCs' characters, depending on which side of the screen I ended up on).

Mind-bogglingly dumb.

I know, I know, mind-bogglingly dumb "to me." But seriously - I'm supposed to get excited because someone rigged up a scythe-blade to swing out of a wall if I stepped on one of the black tiles? That's fun?

Wait, wait, wait. I'm supposed to get excited because I spent 20 minutes of my time - not game time, real time - describing how I prodded things with a wooden pole and tossed rocks at stuff and maybe herded a goat down this hallway, all for the purpose of seeing if a scythe-like blade would swing at anyone stepping on a black tile? That's fun?

Wait, wait, wait. I'm supposed to get excited because after naming my character and designing their stats and thinking of their history, the character died because they stepped wrong? HOW IS THIS FUN?

In the ~20 years I've been running RPG sessions, I can think of two times I've used traps. Once was in 7th Sea, once was in Champions, and the latter was a deathtrap rather than a straight-up trap. The classic dungeon-crawl-style trap is a perfect example of "player vs. environment" RPG thinking. Well, I don't want to wrestle with the environment. And I definitely don't want my character to be killed by it just because I'm not looking at things the way my GM expected me to. Mind-bogglingly dumb.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bagginsday comes but once a year

A couple of things that make me think of Lord Of The Rings, originally posted in honor of the Baggins boys' birthday...

Maybe it's a pack of dwarves on your doorstep. Maybe it's a family heirloom with a sinister past. Whatever it is, it's a lot more fun than just walking into a dungeon because your GM told you that's where you were going.

This is especially important to me when I'm the one running the game. It's important to me that the PCs have good reasons to do whatever they're about to do - revenge, curiosity, obligation, etc. It's best when these things come from the characters themselves; my favorite adventures are the ones that come from the characters' ambitions. Failing that, I like having a framing device - an organization that the PCs belong to (such as a superteam), or perhaps a collection of nine brave souls who are walking from here to the big volcano.

As is often the case, this is about immersion. I find it much easier to suspend my disbelief if the adventure grows organically from things that have come before. Shadows from the past, if you will.

Seriously, people. Don't split up. Stick together.

My "a-ha" moment with this came a couple years ago, after I'd taught my friend Scott to roleplay. Scott made it into his late 30s without ever having tried RPGs, but the news that there was a Star Wars game tipped him into our camp. So we played a few sessions, and then I asked him what he thought about the various tropes and expectations of roleplaying. Turns out he really hated it when the party split up. "It's so boring," he said.

And he's right. It's boring. So when I run games now, I ask the players to not split up unless they really need to. In return, I create adventures that don't require so much splitting up - I design my encounters with the assumption that everyone will be involved. What we lose in reality-simulation, we more than make up for in fun-having. This isn't a novel, after all. We aren't being entertained by Gandalf and Pippin in one place, then Merry in another, then Frodo and Sam in yet another. This is a group activity - so don't sideline each other without a good reason. Don't split up unless you have to - and expect that we'll resolve your solo activities very quickly. Because while one or two players are having fun, everyone else will be bored.