My earliest RPG experiences were with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, 4e, and Pathfinder. These are (each in their own right) wonderful games, full of arcane character options and high-powered tactical abilities that make it fun to build characters and fight monsters. However, while I have nothing against them personally, these are games I would have little to no interest in ever playing again and certainly never GMing again. This is in part because playing only those games gave me a narrow perception of what tabletop RPGs can be. Even D&D 5th edition, while more streamlined, is still far from my ideal game. I don’t mean to incite anyone to anger, again I have nothing against it personally, but for anyone with any interest in this artistic medium, it’s important to recognize that there are other kinds of games with other kinds of assumptions. With that knowledge, one can best leverage the strengths of a given system, or find the system best suited to a given game or to their preferred style, or bring aspects from one system to another. With that in mind, here are four games that changed how I think about tabletop RPGs.
1) Tenra Bansho Zero
This is a Japanese tabletop roleplaying game, one of the few that has been translated into English, and one of the first non-d20 games I ever read, although unfortunately I still have not played it. I would like to play it one day, but even if I never do, even just reading it opened up my mind to new ways to think about tabletop RPG mechanics. The setting is a science-fantasy alternate universe based heavily on Japanese culture, history, and mythology. It explores subjects such as the introduction of Buddhism into Japanese culture and its relationship with Shintoism, the conflict between the indigenous peoples of Japan and the ethnic Japanese, and the psychological impact of transhumanism through body horror. The biggest hook of the system, to me, was the karma mechanic. During character creation, you may accrue karma points to give your character stat boosts or special abilities, and karma can also be spent in-game to succeed when you would otherwise fail or do things that would normally be impossible, a sort of cinematic “anime-mode.” However, if you accrue enough karma, you become an asura, a demon, and your character is taken away from you to become an antagonistic NPC. Characters have a series of personal goals, and accruing these goals allows you to accrue points which can be converted to karma, but also resolving these goals allows you to relieve karma. While the mechanics in games like D&D 5e tend to focus on combat, the idea of using game mechanics to reflect a narrative or philosophical construct radically changed how I thought about what tabletop RPGs can be.
2) Narrative / Story Games (E.g. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, FATE)
Narrative or story games are generally defined as systems that are simple, flexible, and intended to facilitate a particular kind of narrative. There are some contentions around the usage and definitions of these terms, but for the purpose of this article I think this is a useful way of thinking of these games. FATE uses a simple and customizable skill pyramid as the skeleton of all of its mechanics. Characters can effectively do anything it would make sense for them to be able to do from a narrative perspective by rolling a relevant skill. They may spending FATE points on aspects, short descriptors that interact with the environment or narrative, to give themselves benefits to their rolls. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and other Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are constructed for a very specific setting or genre. Actions are engaged with moves, meant to facilitate character interaction or interaction with the narrative. These actions are resolved with given degrees of success and failure on the roll that always keep the game moving forward. Both can be easily modified and are designed to be modified, but I like FATE Core for one-shots since it’s so simple and has a cinematic, fail-forward approach to gaming. I’m still wrapping my head around PbtA games, sometimes I feel like the mechanics in those games just get in the way of me doing what I would be doing anyway, but for someone with no experience with this style of play, these games can serve as good instructions for how to tell compelling narratives in a tabletop RPG.
3) Cypher System (Particularly Numenera)
Cypher system, initially created for the game Numenera, was designed by Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3rd edition. He is a somewhat controversial figure in tabletop, but regardless of what you think of him as a person or businessperson, he is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in tabletop. Cypher is hands-down my favorite system, and while it seems to have carved a niche for itself, I think it’s a shame that it’s not more popular. Monte has stated that he designed the system as a way to correct for some of what he perceives as mistakes he made with D&D 3rd edition, and it feels as a result like a blend of the aforementioned narrativist games and traditional D&D, with some unique mechanics I have not seen anywhere else. It is super easy to run as a GM, with most obstacles or enemies being reducible to a single number. It also finds a strong balance between a wide variety of relatively deep character options that make character building fun, but does not pigeon-hole you into specific builds or become so deep or complex as to stifle storytelling. Many people seem to struggle with its three stat-pool system, which acts effectively as HP and ability points which can be spent to lower the difficulty of tasks as resolved by a d20 roll, but I think if you can wrap your head around it, it’s one of the most distinct and flexible mechanics of any RPG (although that may require a post unto itself).
The Numenera setting is also excellent. The book is packed full of beautiful art, the system is embedded within the game so the Cypher core book is not required, and the setting itself is flexible and open to interpretation. It’s a post-post-apocalyptic, far-future science fantasy setting, one where ancient and advanced technologies indistinguishable from magic are utilized by a medieval world that has sprung up in this glorious refuse. Besides being a perfectly weird setting in itself, it also explains how to build a weird world and tell stories within such a setting in a way that really changed how I thought about worldbuilding. Despite having read so many science fantasy novels, I don’t think I really understood what makes weird worlds work until reading Numenera.
4) OSR (e.g. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells)
OSR, or old school renaissance (some people prefer to say revival), refers to retro-clones of old school (pre-3rd edition) D&D or games derived from those systems. OSR is defined by a complex and highly debated set of properties and sensibilities, but is usually associated with player skill over character skill, intentional lack of game balance, high challenge, low heroics, high mortality, randomization, and GM “rulings” over rules. While once narrow in scope, this term has more recently been associated with games that share these sensibilities but are not strictly tied to old school D&D. Popular examples of OSR games include the weird 17th century-esque Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the slightly more mechanically deep Dungeon Crawl Classics, and more recent games like Into the Odd, Maze Rats, and Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, which are novel systems in their own right. Honestly, OSR is not my preferred style of play, but it is certainly an interesting way to think about tabletop gaming. It is distinct from the crunchier, more tactical games like D&D 3.X, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e, and also from the narrative games. It is worthwhile to understand the history of the medium, and also to explore this new branch of an old style of game, and if nothing else, it has attracted a scene of writers and artists doing really weird, avant garde, novel worldbuilding and game designing. Quite frankly I think it’s the most interesting work in tabletop gaming at the moment.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every game you should play (or read), but these are a handful of games or game-types that have informed how I think about tabletop RPGs. I know I spend a lot of time in my articles talking about worldbuilding, and I consider myself a worldbuilder first and foremost, but game mechanics can inform a setting. Two games set in Forgotten Realms or some other traditional fantasy setting can feel completely different depending on whether you’re playing the heroic, tactical D&D 5e, or playing the deadly OSR games which encourage roguish behavior. A karma system like Tenra Bansho Zero allows you to explore philosophical conceits within the game itself. Narrative games allow you to tell a collaborative genre story without the game mechanics getting in the way of the story. Systems like Cypher may give you the best of all worlds, and a setting book like Numenera may make you a better worldbuilder and GM. No need to trash your D&D 5e or Pathfinder books, but if you’ve ever thought, “I wonder what else I can do?”, give some of these games a look!
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2016/07/07/16/46/roll-the-dice-1502706_1280.jpg
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We live in a golden age of gaming. Roleplayers these days are spoiled for choice, and an RPG, especially a fantasy RPG, must be something truly unique and innovative to avoid being trampled by a veritable orcish horde of competition. It’s no surprise then that the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game by Goodman Games is building a horde of its own with a die-hard cult following all over the world. Modern gamers may at first crinkle their noses at what DCC has to offer. “Only seven classes? Three of them are races too? Where are the pages of Feats?” However, between the covers of DCC’s deceptively meaty tome is one of the most finely crafted fantasy roleplaying games on the market today. Goodman Games lovingly poured nearly 20 years of experience into their creation, and it shows, presenting a fresh and innovative look at time honored conventions such as spell casting, Game Mastery, even gaining XP. This game will change the way you look at roleplaying games.
1) You Probably Already Know How To Play
Dungeon Crawl Classics runs on a streamlined, rules-light version of the classic d20 System. So if you’re already familiar with systems such as Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition or Pathfinder, most of the game will already be old hat, plus or minus a few tweaks. DCC’s biggest change is the Dice Chain. Rather than bombard players with a pedantic slough of plus and minus modifiers, DCC simply lets you move up or down the Dice Chain, rolling a larger or smaller die for your action. To facilitate this, DCC adds in d5’s, d7’s, all the way up to a d30. However, while rolling a d30 is immensely satisfying, you don’t actually have to own any of the weird dice to play. You can simulate them perfectly with the standard 7 polyhedrals you already own. For instance, a d30 is easily aped with a d10 and a d6. If the d6 comes up three or four, add ten to the result of the d10, five or six add 20.
2) A User-Friendly XP System
I spend my free time adding numbers to dice for fun, and I can still say with a reasonable degree of certainty that nobody likes math. DCC takes much of the heavy lifting out of tracking advancement. Every player gains 0 to 4 XP based on how difficult an encounter was to overcome, whether they completely steamrolled it, barely crawled away alive, or anything in between. No forcing the Judge to fiddle with wacky multipliers or pore over endless CR charts, and the players don’t have to bust out calculators every time they want to see how much closer they’ve crawled to the next level.
For Judges that don’t want to see the campaign degenerate into a series of monster closets, characters also gain XP for activities related to their class. Warriors gain XP from training with weapons, Wizards gain XP from researching spells, etc.
3) The Character Funnel Is A Game Unto Itself
While characters in DCC can be created in a traditional manner (4d6 drop the lowest, 3d6 down the line, etc.) the rulebook suggests a brand new method called “The Funnel.”
Rolling on some tables, the players create two to four Level 0 characters; simple village folks with little more than 1d4 Hit Points, an improvised weapon and an occupation, such as Farmer, Locksmith, or Gongfarmer (the guy that cleans out the outhouse). The players march their plucky peasant mob through a dungeon of horrible monsters, lethal traps, and the twisted, mangled bodies of their fallen comrades to prove themselves worthy of being first level adventurers. The idea is to randomize character creation, thus making it harder to “power game” while also allowing the players some level of agency over the character they end up with, as the player will be more inclined to take risks with the characters they don’t want.
I admit, I was originally skeptical of this when I first read it. However, speaking from experience, the funnel is an absolute blast. The most fun I had at GenCon last year was marching my own band of intrepid amateurs through a buzzsaw. Even if you decide to use traditional character creation for your own campaigns, Funnels make perfect fodder for one-shots or convention games, and are by themselves icing on an already delicious cake.
4) Spells Are Dynamic
Spells in most games are rote. Mark of a spell slot, look up the effect, it will do the same exact thing every time, plus or minus a saving throw, and then it’s gone for the day.
In DCC, magic is the building blocks of the multiverse, the tools of gods and demons and far beyond the ken of mortal men. It’s dangerous, it’s unpredictable, and its awesome.
When a Wizard casts a spell, they make a spell check. Depending on the roll, a spell can manifest in more powerful or completely different ways. This is what lends the rulebook its ample girth; every spell has its own table. Fireball might scorch a patch of ground, or it might erupt into a barrage of flaming orbs, leap across multiple targets, or even call down a burning meteor from the heavens. Levitate might raise a single person into the air, or it might conjure a 20 x 20 invisible floating platform, make everything in a 10 ft. square float, or life an entire castle into the air for a month.
It’s also worth noting that unless a player rolls particularly poorly, spells are not lost upon casting and can be used multiple times. This facet alone carries several benefits, not the least of which is alleviating the “five-minute workday” problem other RPG’s have tried to address with cantrips. Clerics no longer have to miserly hoard spell slots for healing, and anyone who has played a healer before can tell you how liberating that is. I’ve also seen players who refused to play spellcasters in other games leap to Wizards and Clerics here, as they still feel useful instead of drained dry by a few rounds of combat.
However, there’s a price to be paid for such power. Spells can just as easily backfire, and for Wizards, being mutated into a hideous monstrosity by the coruscating waves of magic is about the best one could hope for. Truly unfortunate sorcerers may find themselves aged 100 years, warped to another plane, or on the wrong end of a demon lord’s eternal enmity. The Spell Duel system (DCC’s take on the traditional counterspell) cranks this up to 11. All manner of havoc can ensue when the energies of the cosmos are bashed together like billiard balls.
Clerics accrue the disapproval of their deity, and being on a god’s bad side starts to suck real fast. Sinning, or just plain failing their spell checks, widens an ever increasing Disapproval range. When a spell check falls within their Disapproval range, the deity calls the Cleric to atone for his sins, and they don’t exactly ask nicely. The rulebook comes complete with a table chock full of creative punishments for a Cleric who takes his divine powers for granted.
5) Mighty Deeds Of Arms
Martial Maneuvers are a popular idea in modern d20 games, but most of them are still gated behind character archetypes or a litany of Feats. This means that most players will never get use them, and the few who do will have to deliberately build their characters to perform a handful of situational techniques at the expense of something else. Dungeon Crawl Classics resolves this with a mechanic called Mighty Deeds of Arms. Warriors get a bonus die called a Deed Die, which serves as their attack and damage bonus, and increases in size as they gain levels. When making an attack, they can declare a Mighty Deed. If the Deed Die rolls high enough and the attack hits, they can accomplish anything the player can think of with their weapon, (subject to Judge approval of course) from simply disarming an opponent to sending them flying through a door, stapling them to the spot with an arrow, or any number of bombastic stunts. This system makes Warriors true weapon masters, giving them limitless flexibility in combat beyond “I run up and hit ‘em.”
6) The Rules They Didn’t Write Are Just As Important
There are some things DCC deliberately left out. You won’t find a Raise Dead spell in the rulebook. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t raise dead. At a certain level in most roleplaying games, death is just a gold tax. Fork over 500 gold to the local temple of Who Cares and suddenly getting beheaded is a minor inconvenience. DCC says “quest for it.” Travel to Hell and steal the soul back, trek to the Haunted Fen to beseech a lich lord for passage into Death’s realm, search for an ancient coin minted by a lost kingdom to bribe Charon for passage across the river Styx. Want to increase your stats? Quest for it. Want a magic weapon? Quest for it. Want a dragon to ride on? Go on an adventure, you know, like an adventurer.
The Judge’s section of the rulebook implores you to make monsters unique, and create your own, but rather than besiege a Judge with charts and rules that take 30 minutes to pore over, DCC simply presents you with a few pages of example monsters and tells you to go for it. On paper this might seem unbalanced and exploitable, but in practice it keeps monster creation from being a laborious process, meaning that most Judges will actually do it. This is its own benefit as it keeps players from being able to metagame an encounter, as they’ll constantly encounter and endless array of new monsters with abilities they’ve never seen before.
The rules-light aspect of DCC also makes it incredibly easy to house rule. The rules for most RPGs are balanced precariously upon an intricate mathematical lattice, which means that often changing a rule can have unforeseen consequences in another area. DCC actually encourages you to house rule and homebrew whatever you like to make the game your own, and since there aren’t many rules, there’s not much to break. Want some more classes? Go ahead and write ‘em up. Racial classes aren’t your style? Give humans a stat boost and add the demihuman racial traits to the human classes. Is the game a bit too lethal for your liking? You can crank up the number of failed luck roles needed to buy the farm.
This also helps it translate easily to other settings and genres beyond fantasy. The third party sourcebook Transylvanian Adventures takes DCC into Gothic Horror territory, the free Gongfarmer’s Almanac 2017 presented the WWII-themed Trench Crawl Classics, the module Rock God Death Fugue turns the party into a rock band on tour, and the upcoming Mutant Crawl Classics brings players into the devastated ruins of a primitive post-apocalyptic future. Creative judges will have no shortage of epic adventure on their hands.
Dungeon Crawl Classics puts story and adventure first and players and GM’s a very close second. It will ignite your creativity, it will make you rethink the way you play fantasy RPGs, but most of all, it will remind you that gaming isn’t about pouring over endless sourcebooks and an unending litany of rules. It’s about having adventures, it’s about telling stories with your friends, and it’s about a damn good time. More and more gamers are remembering every day, and if you truly wish to see what’s fantasy gaming could be, you owe it to yourself to check out Dungeon Crawl Classics.
Chaz Lebel is a fiction author and member of Caffeinated Conquests, a YouTube channel dedicated to nerd comedy and tabletop gaming. He and his team once produced some promotional videos for High Level Games that they probably wish they could forget. Chaz can be found on Twitter @CafConIsOn
Picture Reference: http://www.belloflostsouls.net/2017/01/tabletop-spotlight-dungeon-crawl-classics-rpg.html
In late March Goodman Games launched their Kickstarter to bring the legendary Lankhmar setting to their OSR game, Dungeon Crawl Classics. I asked Goodman Games' Michael Curtis a few questions about fantasy's past and DCC’s future.
Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions!
My pleasure, Philip!
1) Lankhmar has been around for a long time and has had many different iterations. How do you strike a balance between handling the legacy of the city and creating something new?
It’s certainly a challenge. The Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories have been around for almost 80 years, and RPG companies have been interpreting those tales since 1976. Suffice to say, a lot of people have their own personal notions of Lankhmar and Nehwon. I don’t think it’s possible to appease everyone, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try with DCC Lankhmar.
I began by rereading the stories, first in the order they were published and then in the chronological order they were later arranged in, all the while taking copious notes. I nearly filled up two composition notebook with all my jottings, notations, and references! I then cross-referenced and highlighted this information to create a firm “canonical guide” to Lankhmar, Nehwon, and the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
This became the bedrock we needed to build upon, the facts that we had to take into account as we adapted Lankhmar to DCC RPG. Whenever possible, we strove to never overwrite or contradict these essential truths—which is something that even Leiber himself did from time to time! Instead, we looked for the holes in the narrative, the little details that Leiber might have mentioned but never fleshed out and used those as springboard to create new material.
Maintaining the tone of Lankhmar was extremely important to us as during the design phase. If we could find a way to tweak an existing DCC rule to make it feel like something that replicated life in a Lankhmar story, we did so. If we had to create a new NPC or monster, we looked back at who or what had already shown in the stories and used them as guidelines. Keeping that balance between the literary canon and the new RPG-related material for DCC Lankhmar was tough at times, but I believe we’ve done the best job of adapting Leiber’s stories to tabletop role-playing to date. DCC RPG was designed from the ground up to replicate the sword & sorcery pulp tales of authors like Howard, Lovecraft, Leiber, etc., so Lankhmar is in the game’s very DNA. We didn’t have to tweak the rules much to make them fit Leiber’s stories!
2) Speaking of the new, what can DCC fans expect from the new setting?
DCC Lankhmar introduces some exciting new rules like how to handle healing in a DCC RPG game without clerical magic, a new mechanism called the patron die that allows non-spellcasters to appeal for aid from supernatural entities, and, the one I’m most excited about, the Fleeting Luck mechanic.
DCC RPG players know how important the Luck ability is in the game. It can be spent to influence rolls and plays a part in determining if you die when knocked to zero hit points. With DCC Lankhmar, we have a new system that pumps up the Luck economy of the game. Players will find it easier to earn Luck for their characters by rolling well, creative role-playing, or just engaging in actions and activities that feel properly “Nehwonian.” This increased amount of Luck allows them to pull off more daring (or foolhardy) activities, better replicating the adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. But there’s a catch.
As the name implies, Fleeting Luck can disappear at almost any moment, so the PCs are encouraged to spend it quickly. This leads to bigger risks, which results in more Luck, and so the cycle perpetuates itself. It’s a terrific new system and I expect it to quickly make the jump over to more traditional DCC RPG games.
DCC Lankhmar also has loads of new monsters, spells, patrons, and other goodies to challenge and reward adventurers in Nehwon or to be borrowed for games set on other worlds. Whether you intend to base your campaign in Lankhmar or anywhere else, you’ll find the DCC Lankhmar a valuable addition to your gaming collection and judge’s tool box.
3) Lankhmar and Nehwon have been hugely influential on gaming and fantasy. How did they influence DCC?
Leiber’s stories are about what I call “blue collar heroes.” Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser aren’t high fantasy protagonists engaging in derring-do because of lofty ideals, self-sacrifice, or strict codes of honor. They are out to preserve their own skins and fatten their purses—things any DCC RPG character is likely to identify with. The mantra of DCC RPG is “You’re no hero,” and that reflects a lot of the grittiness of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
To a lesser extent, I think the characters of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face helped influence the concept of magical corruption in DCC RPG. The origins of the Twain’s mentors are never fully explained in the stories, but one of the possible causes of their odd physical traits is hinted as being the magic they practice. Physical mutation and malformation because of sorcery isn’t solely something from Leiber’s work, but I believe it’s one of the more visible examples of that phenomenon in sword & sorcery fiction.
4) DCC is known for being particularly brutal to player characters. How much worse is Lankhmar going to treat them?
That depends a lot on the judge! Going back to my earlier answer about the difficulty of pleasing everyone’s personal interpretations of Lankhmar, we provide a lot of rules options in the boxed set that allow judges and players to customize their gaming experience on Nehwon. Non-magical healing has a few different rule options judges can employ to make their games gritty and grim (in playtesting, some PCs became decrepit with injuries by the time they reached 3rd level) or more forgiving without mollycoddling the characters. PCs in a bleak, street-hardened DCC Lankhmar game are going to end up battered and bruised if not outright dead. It’s up to the individual gaming groups to decide how tough they want life on the streets of Lankhmar to be!
5) The Kickstarter is the first in a line of products set in Lankhmar. What’s next for the setting and Goodman Games?
We’ve got a great bunch of stretch goals we’re still working on as part of the Kickstarter. No less than six adventures have been plotted out and we’ve got a cadre of great designers like Steven Bean, Daniel J. Bishop, Bob Brinkman, Tim Callahan, Terry Olson, Harley Stroh, and myself set to tackle them. There’s also a cloth map of Lankhmar in the works, a supplement for developing Random NPCs for the players to encounter, and a book detailing a dozen location in Lankhmar the characters might visit during their adventures.
If all goes extremely well, I’m going to visit the Fritz Leiber Papers collection down in Texas and spend a week going through his original manuscripts, story notes, correspondence, and more, looking for inspiration to write a seventh adventure. That’s the closest we can come to co-creating a DCC Lankhmar module with Leiber, himself, now that he’s no longer with us.
Beyond those planned releases, Joseph Goodman and I have hashed out a multi-year schedule of DCC Lankhmar supplements designed to span the face of Nehwon and bring it and its inhabitants to DCC RPG tables everywhere. I’d love to do a Quarmall supplement covering the subterranean city and the political rivalries there, detail the intriguing city of Ool Hrusp, scale Stardock and explore the Cold Waste, set sail on the Inner and Outer Seas and fight Mingol pirates, and visit Rime Isle. There’s no shortage of material to build upon in Leiber’s stories.
I’d be remiss not to mention that DCC Lankhmar is just the first licensed property being adapted to DCC RPG. Goodman Games is also developing a supplemental line based on the Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance. Designer Jobe Bittman has been working on that for the past year, and I understand it’s coming together nicely. There may also be some other intriguing things in the works regarding the famed Appendix N that inspired DCC RPG, but you’ll have to wait for a formal announcement on those!
Check out the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Kickstarter ending the last week of April.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games