A Gamer struggling to answer the question "Is this a game?"

A Gamer struggling to answer the question "Is this a game?"
Herein lives an attempt to grapple with issues of game design, play and comparison, focusing on table-top role-playing games. Subjective criteria include 16 years professional practice as a lawyer, a somewhat contrary personality (I have been told) and a healthy measure of cynicism towards dogmatic positions.

"... For a book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book 'means' thereafter, perforce,—both grammatically and actually,—whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it." — James Branch Cabell

Friday, 7 June 2013

Dungeon Crawl Classics

While my group and I have been concentrating on the D&D Next Playtest, we could hardly ignore the interweb hype about Goodman Games' addition to the old new school rpg movement. I will not comment on the presentation, artwork and game materials of this excellent game. Much has been said by many other commentators about the book, almost all overwhelmingly positive. The net is full of glowing accounts of how it looks and how it reads. I have the deluxe black and gold version of the book that shipped with an additional free adventure, and it is certainly a great piece of gaming literature. Everything about it is very good. But role-playing games are ultimately  judged on how they play, not how they look. Before getting the book I did several web searches for play experiences to hear from players and referees how the game worked in practice. Weirdly enough, there weren't that many. Sure, there were some excellent videos. I recommend Wintersome's excellent two part video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOjJMuUo7BY. But the reports of actual play were few and far between.

We have now played the game. I have run three funnel sessions of Sailors on the Starless Sea. As promised it was carnage. The players have enjoyed it. Let me say at the outset that DCC plays smoothly and easily. The learning curve for experienced gamers was almost non-existent. Overall we have had a very positive experience of the game, but I have two points to make. I have to raise them in the interests of balance because its difficult to find any negative comments about the game.

The first has to do with the game's tone. The author is very clear. This is for people who like "Appendix N" fantasy literature. OK, that's me. I am target market group. The game makes use of randomness to make the experience wild, weird and often out of control for the characters. This is also very cool because it takes the game in unexpected directions. But while tables (and the game abounds with them) are cool for throwing up interesting stuff, they also have another effect. Results of character actions become hard coded to the thematic material contained in the tables. What I mean is that in-game outcomes (which are often derived from table results) all follow the same fantasy theme of wild, out of control events, often with, extra-planar or otherworldly entities behind them. Is this "Appendix N"? In my opinion, No. Its Michael Moorcock, with possible hints of Zelazny and Vance. I appreciate fully the gratitude expressed by JG to all the authors he lists and also the influences of those authors on his own views of literature, many of which I probably share, but I don't think DCC is a game that allows the creation of stories across the gamut of Appendix N. The main reason for this are the spell tables, which form a large portion of the book, and which contain much of the game's thematic material. These, together with the mercurial magic, corruption tables and the alignment system, give the game its flavour. And yes, you can house rule your own flavour, but that's a bit like rewriting the book. Don't get me wrong, I love the flavour. I love Elric and Hawkmoon, but IMHO it would be difficult to run a Tolkien-type game using the DCC rules.

The second point relates to the 0-Level character generation system. For those unfamiliar with the system, you generate a few 0-level characters very quickly and run many of them through a start-up adventure called a "funnel" which kills most of them, but something strange happens to the few that survive. They develop a shared game story, they gain a lot of wealth through attrition and they reach the elusive first level where they choose a character class and become fully-fledged adventurers. This is a good system but it feels somewhat reactionary to me. By this I mean it is pitched as an admonition to min/maxers. More charitably it is an explanation to gamers who came up through D&D 3e and 3.5, that, contrary to what they may have learned from those games, their character's abilities are irrelevant. DCC does this by making players grow to like the poor hapless sods they play and appreciating all their heroics as exactly that, heroic. It also uses a very flat bonus/penalty to Ability Score ratio (flatter than D&D) which gives mechanical assistance to the idea.

What's wrong with this lesson? Nothing unless it doesn't need to be learned. My group is middle-aged. They are going to hate me for saying it; and they have played many games. Most of them are experienced players who don't optimise. They play all sorts of characters good and bad and most role-play the hell out of it. So maybe, the character gen system is a little patronising.

OK, that's the best I could do to come up with negative comments about DCC. Its an excellent game that reminds me of the first games of AD&D I played, but with a smoother interface, a fantastic spell system which I cannot believe has not been implemented before and all the interesting randomness to send the characters to hell and back. In other words Two-thumbs up. Is it perfect? No. It is, in my view, thematically limited, but the theme it does exceptionally is one that I love and I know many other gamers the world over love it too.