[DCC] Creating house rules for Dungeon Crawl Classics

Eero, Ebear, Paul and I discussed DCC for a bit in this thread and I’d like to address some points here.

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.

Comments

  • 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.

    A serious long-term campaign will almost inevitably accrue extensive house-rules (not least because DCC is not nearly as balanced as (A)D&D). If you are prepared for that - and in fact enjoy this aspect with your group -, you’ll be transported back to the days of yore (AD&D, rather than OD&D, I believe).
  • First of all I just want to say thank you so much for posting this, it's clear that you've spent a lot of time with the game. Also I'm very interested in reading your blog posts, I really appreciate the candidness of the ones I've read so far. I've also considered running Barrowmaze as it happens, it's so unlike any kind of dungeon I've run before which is part of what appeals to me. When I look through the rooms it seems sparse to me, but I've learned that I often don't know what I like until I try it.

    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.
    Thanks for that observation, now that you've pointed it out that does sound unfortunate especially (a). Does this mean you don't use ability score damage for spellburn? Do you use hp instead? (this something I've considered but have no reason to think it would work)

    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.
    Wow that does sound like quite the undertaking, I'm glad it's turned out to be a worthwhile experience. It does seem to me that these rule changes tend to be part of the experience with D&D and D&D related games, I'm not sure that's bad.

    It does put me in mind of some parts of a 5e campaign I had where magic ended up taking up a disproportionate (it's all relative) portion of the game. That was the general consensus of the group I played with (even the spell casters). I really like the part of the game I glibly call "playing 20 questions with a door knob", but at higher levels the questions became "which spell am I going to cast on this door knob".

    I was kind of hoping putting some kind of price on magic (beyond a spell slot) as has been done in DCC might help add variety to the kind of solutions the players worked up. But it sounds like DCC (taken RAW) might actually make things worse. I don't think that's a lost cause but at least I know I haven't found an easy answer :)
  • Does this mean you don't use ability score damage for spellburn? Do you use hp instead?
    In my houserules, spellburn increases the natural fumble range (i.e. when you use 5 points of spellburn, you fumble on a 1-6). When you do fumble, there is a high (80%) chance, you permanently lose a single point from a random physical ability score (or elect to lose a point of Luck instead).

    This may be too harsh regarding spellburn - it's hardly used, excep to recast spells lost for the day - but the brutal fumble rules work nicely. They mostly prevent "I always cast that spell every morning/before we enter a new room in the dungeon/on every doorknob" strategies. The brutal fumble rules also mean that over the long-term, magic-users end up physically crippled, which I rather like as it fits the source material with its emaciated, hunchbacked wizards... =) =) =)

    One drawback is that low-level magic-users joining a high-level group and gaining levels quickly tend to be far less crippled than those who gained levels slowly. However, the latter have also picked up more magic items and special stuff (e.g. a fairy's blessing etc.), so it kind of balances out.)
    It does seem to me that these rule changes tend to be part of the experience with D&D and D&D related games, I'm not sure that's bad.
    I agree it's part of the D&D experience and I think it works very nicely when a group develops rules in play. That way, the system can get quite complex, but as everyone took part in its creation, all the minutiae have already been internalized.

    However, I would not recommend picking up somebody else's house rules (e.g. Hackmaster), except to pilfer ideas.

    (And maybe if the system offers a lot of tables, spell descriptions and so on which take a lot of work to develop on your own (e.g. DCC, Rolemaster).)
  • Thank you for the overview, that was interesting.

    I agree that the weird dice fetish DCC has makes it mechanically relatively clunky. I imagine that the designer feels differently about it; perhaps they get great satisfaction from the act of dice handling (picking the right die and so on), or they have a handling system that makes it easier, or whatever.

    All in all, comparing it to AD&D seems pretty on the spot in some ways. It's got less of that AD&D special charm (clunkiness, uncontrolled complexity, etc.), but compared to more Basic iterations of D&D it deviates in the same direction. I'm not surprised that some people like it a lot, as there's a clear demographic of roleplayers for whom the whole business is simply a bit more real if it's enmeshed in a sufficient number of mechanical doohickeys. Combine that technical interfacing preference with a desire to do old school D&D, and there you go - people for whom DCC is a better choice than Swords & Wizardry or whatever.
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