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Dungeon Crawl Classics Review

DDC

“The age of gongfarmers brings particularly unpleasant lives to those who live within its lowest class of peasants. Money is fleeting, health is barely a concept and food will forever struggle to hit the table. Don’t you want a better life? Maybe bring along a new, respected title for your name in the process? Well, maybe it’s time to do something radical. Maybe, it’s time to become a hero!”

~some dead bloke

A truly beautiful passage from the conscience of a dead man; someone who delved too deep into the shallowest of waters, someone who simply placed one foot in front of the other and became twice the man he once was by getting torn in twain by a half-dog, half-sentient-eyeball that lived in the bushes outside of the dragon’s lair he planned on entering. This is not your modern fantasy, kids; this is Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Am I going to be alright?

No. Probably not. But that’s the fun of this kind of game! Welcome to the OSR, or the OSR-adjacent. This little acronym is short for “Old-School Renaissance”, which is a genre of RPG that brought waves of different systems into existence since the early 2000s. It is all about bringing the feeling of the older editions of RPGs back into style, and generally modernising layouts and sometimes mechanisms whilst remaining faithful to that old, deadly, dungeon-crawling vibe.

Dungeon Crawl Classics isn’t new. It’s been around as a system since 2011, and as a supplemental setting since way before that. It brings with it a warped memory of old-school Dungeons & Dragons. This isn’t the D&D you see people play in those shows that tug on the nerd-stalgia strings. This is the D&D for freaks and weirdos, the stoners who run their campaigns to the sound of psychedelic rock music and the striking tabletop visuals of metal band posters plastered to their tables.

This sounds weird. I’m in. How do you play?

Well, it’s good to hear you have exquisite taste. Playing Dungeon Crawl Classics is pretty simple. It’s a D20 system game based on the old D&D 3rd Edition framework, so it’s likely going to feel pretty similar to what most people are used to. You roll 20-sided dice for your skill checks, and you roll other dice for damage and whatnot. Generally you want to roll high, with the odd exception to that rule, like with roll-under percentage checks. The game is class based, so you have your usual core four and a few other little variants for them. It’s all pretty easy to grasp if you’ve played anything D&D adjacent before.

First thing you need to do is make a character! This means you have to look through the 300 page rulebook to figure out what class, subclass, feats and equipment you want, then optimise everything mathematically to maintain the illusion of balance that the system provides, right? WRONG. You make a character the real way, by making 4 absolutely useless characters, sending them into a meat grinder dungeon, and getting your pick of the characters that come out alive on the other end. Those guys get a class and a real adventurer’s status. This character creation process is called “The Funnel”, and it’s the most ridiculous character creation method ever conceived.

After you’ve “created” a character, you get to pick a class for them... or they get a special race-related class if you’d like, but Dungeon Crawl Classics doesn’t care if you make that a choice as well. This is where the real game starts; the real weird, wild and wacky mechanisms that lock together into something amazing and cacophonic. Not to get anyone too excited, but my favourite iteration of the standard core classes of D&D (Fighter, Cleric, Wizard and Rogue) are in this game, which is why I have to describe each of them individually.

Warrior

Warrior is Dungeon Crawl Classics equivalent of Fighter, and in addition to the classic tropes of being able to utilise weapons and armour perfectly, as well as having the most health of the lot, they have a particularly special ability called the Mighty Deeds of Arms. Every single attack they make is rolled using a d20 and their Mighty Deeds die, which varies in size depending on the level. When they attack something, they are always able to describe how. Maybe they strike at their legs, or their eyes, or try to boot them in the crotch. The Mighty Deeds die is not only a bonus to their attack roll, but also a method of determining whether or not their creative efforts succeed, and to what degree.

For example, going for the eyes could look like this, with each number representing a result on the Mighty Deeds Die:

3 : You slash through their eyelashes, just barely missing their eyes. A couple of hairs get in however, and the distraction is enough to grant a -1 to their next attack roll.

4 : You slash at their eyebrow, causing blood to gush down over their eyes, their next attacks will be made with a -2 until they wipe their eyes clean with an action.

5-8+ : ...Gradual increase of effect…

It allows for so many creative manoeuvres without any silly penalties or limitations getting in the way, and can be riffed easily with some practice.

Thief

The Thief is the only class with predefined skills, and can perform all of them to some degree based on their alignment. These are the classic Basic / Expert D&D skills alongside some others. This allows you to be a perfect, unlimited tour-de-force outside of combat for scouting and moving through dangerous areas unseen and unhindered. It also allows you to perform some sneaky actions like poisoning people, forging documents, and even the good old-fashioned backstab.

Their real allure, however, is that they have the power to manipulate their results to a far higher degree than other classes. In Dungeon Crawl Classics, one core stat is Luck, which much like Call of Cthulhu 7e, can be spent to add points to a die result, at the cost of a higher chance of failing luck checks later down the line, and potentially getting to a point where you've ran out of luck to spend. Normally, you can't regain Luck at all, it's all under the GMs control, but Thieves not only regenerate luck every day, but every time they spend it they instead roll a die and add the rolled number to their final result. This means that spending 3 Luck for a Warrior would just add +3 to their roll and will likely never see those points for a long time past this point, but to a Thief 3 points of luck might add 3d4 to their result, and they'll regain some with every rest! (The dice size increases as a Thief levels up).

Taking risks is easy when you're lucky.

Wizard

The Wizard is completely insane, mostly due to the magic system, which I'll explain shortly. Setting wise, Wizards get their magic from research, but they also tend to worship a scary Patron who they can sacrifice things to in order to help themselves succeed. They are pretty bog-standard as far as base class stats go, but you are one of the few classes who can cast spells, and it is wild... literally.

Each spell in Dungeon Crawl Classics is a table; and whatever result you roll on your die will determine your result. For example, casting the ol' classic Fireball and rolling a 12 might result in a little Area of Effect 3d6 explosion, but rolling a 22 might result in 4 different small fireballs erupting from your hand, rolling a 30 might result in one huge fireball that can be thrown a mile away from you, etc. I made those numbers up, but the results are real things. Every spell is like this; and those higher numbers can be obtained via sacrifice; cutting a few fingers off to gain more numbers on your result, for example (spending your physical stats like Strength and whatnot mechanically).

It's also not quite Vancian, you can cast spells as much as you want, until you fail. Once you fail a spell, that's when you forget it. Not only that, but if you crit fail, oof, every spell has its own unique fumble table too, and you're likely to gain a corruption – something that will slowly turn your stoic mage into a disgusting monstrosity warped by dark magic and ousted by towns and cities alike.

So not only does every spell feel unique to cast, but also - every spell is literally unique. When you learn a spell, you also roll a random Mercurial Magic modifier on it. That Fireball spell I mentioned? Well, the way you learnt to cast it also has the weird side effect of forming a short but heavy rain of frogs around you that can hit your allies and make the floor slippery. Or that Invisibility spell method you have? That's enhanced so much you get to roll a d30 when you cast it! Oh, but the Ropework spell; that will kill someone you know. Use it sparingly. This means that you can even learn multiple different versions of Fireball with different side effects.

It's kinda wild, and risky to perform, but that's how something as powerful as magic should be treated.

Cleric

Finally, the Cleric is the good old-fashioned Warrior of their preferred Deity. They can wear armour, wield holy weaponry, heal those who align with their ideals, and turn away those who don’t. For example, Lay on Hands heals others differently depending on where they align in comparison to you. Your alignment also determines your Turn Unholy ability. When you're Lawful you can turn away Undead Horrors and more, when you're Chaotic you can turn away Angels, Paladins, etc.

The particularly interesting part about clerics is also their spellcasting system. Unlike Wizards, their magic comes from a holy place, and so they will never be tainted by it. Not only can you infinitely cast spells without losing them, but you will never be corrupted. That sounds powerful, right? Well, there's a tradeoff…

Your deity is probably a jerk. Doing anything wrong by your religion and beliefs, or even just critically failing a spell roll will gradually increase your Disapproval Rating, a number that starts at 1 and determines exactly when you critically fail a spell check. So casting spells all the time will slowly but surely increase your chances of disappointing your deity. When you disappoint your deity, something bad happens. Perhaps you're forced to get on your hands and knees and chant for 10 minutes while in the middle of combat, else you'll lose your powers. Your Disapproval Rating won't decrease naturally, either. This gives the GM lots of creative input on how exactly you can please your god. Maybe it's burning all of your money? Maybe it's going on a quest for an old religious artefact? This lends itself to lots of easy plot generation.

The Races

The races are just rough variations on these classes, much like they are in the old Basic / Expert sets of D&D. The Dwarf is a stocky Warrior that is particularly good with shields, can see in the dark, and can smell gold! The Elf is a Wizard who can both cast spells and use weapons, but they’re not particularly proficient with either. They can also detect hidden doors, see in the dark and are... allergic to iron. Huh. The Halfling is a little Thief that is quite good at dual-wielding; but also, they get to share their luck with their party members! All the races are pretty simple in their designs but add that extra bit of flare, and provide a handy framework for you to utilise while making your own custom races!

Final Thoughts

I cannot overstate how much I love the design of the core four here. These are phenomenal in every way for aiding creativity in an RPG session, and are my favourite designs of any of these classic classes ever. Also, the art, the adventures, the other little bits I didn't include, like the insane amount of tables, funky monsters, and oddities included in the core book and the supplements are all just great. Some of the adventures are the weirdest things I've ever seen and I love them. One of them literally makes you cut out a particular page to utilise in an incredibly unique way which may or may not include putting it onto a player's face and integrating that into the mechanisms of the dungeon. I'm keeping it vague as to not spoil anything, but trust me - so very creative. Did I mention that classic settings from your favourite old fantasy novels like Lankhmar or The Dying Earth have proper setting boxes made for this game? How cool is that?!

I will add, however, that the game isn’t perfect. Of course it isn’t. For example, I don’t think many of the 3e-isms really match the vibe of an old school dungeon crawl; like individual initiative for example. The game is also pretty explicit with its design not being for new RPG players. It will assume the reader has played RPGs before, is knowledgeable on how they work – especially the old school variety, and it will neglect to explain itself thoroughly sometimes due to that. It also has a surprising lack of listed magical items, as the book states it wants you to use them sparingly, but that’s no fun – where are my cursed items?!